The European Union offered a path to membership to western Balkan nations, calling on a region divided by poverty and ethnic tensions to improve the rule of law, curb corruption and put aside past grudges to enter the world’s largest trading club.

With the U.K. set to become the first EU member to depart, Serbia and Montenegro can join by 2025, the European Commission said after approving an Enlargement Strategy in the Western Balkans. Officials said the region’s other four countries Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo have a clear perspective toward entering the bloc at that time as well, depending on the pace of reforms and negotiations, more than two decades after the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

The strategy is a shift by the EU after a decade of financial crises, the largest refugee inflows since World War II, Brexit and Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. An alleged coup attempt in Montenegro, unrest in the parliaments of Macedonia and Albania and tensions between Serbia and Kosovo underscore the risks of renewed unrest. Officials in Brussels focused on resolving security issues and strengthening the rule of law in the region of 18 million people.

“From a European perspective, it’s important to understand that we either export stability or we import instability,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters in Strasbourg, France. “The EU, its member states, will never accept a state that hasn’t resolved pending issues or conflicts.”

Bulgaria, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, will host a summit in May to discuss the matter, and the bloc’s leaders may make concrete decisions in June, EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini said. Along with other ex-communist nations between the Baltic and Black Seas, the former Yugoslav states of Croatia and Slovenia have joined the 28-member bloc and are benefiting from improved trade and billions of euros in development funds.

“This represents a change of focus from Brussels,” the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies said in a report. “Whereas previously the EU had assumed that improving economic connectivity would automatically bring about political cooperation, the approach now recognizes that these two issues must progress together, and that sometimes the politics has to come first.”

The commission broke down the necessary work into six initiatives:

  • rule of law
  • security and migration
  • socio-economic development
  • connectivity
  • digital agenda
  • reconciliation and good neighborly relations

By 2025, “the EU could become larger than 27 members,” according to the strategy. While the date was specifically mentioned for Serbia and Montenegro, accession talks may begin with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia on the basis of fulfilled conditions, according to the report. Bosnia and Herzegovina can become a candidate “with sustained effort.”

“That’s an indicative date an encouragement so that the parties concerned work hard to follow that path,” Jean-Claude Juncker, who leads the European Union’s executive arm, told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg. “We wish to see enlargement in the western Balkans.”

For Serbia to progress, it must normalize relations with neighboring Kosovo in a legally binding agreement, the commission said. All countries must introduce measures to uphold judicial independence and tackle organized crime and graft.

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said her country will “work even faster and more efficiently on fulfilling the criteria” for EU entry and won’t be seeking shortcuts.

“The people of the Balkans and the leaders of the Balkans have made a clear choice: the choice of being inside the European Union,” Mogherini said. “Today, we’re telling them that we’ve made the same choice.”

Source: Bloomberg

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