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Top EU Diplomat: Enlargement Realistic but Not Binding Deadline

FILE: European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini speaks during a media conference in Brussels, Jan. 11, 2018.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is dismissing criticism of the newly released European Commission enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans.

Unveiled Tuesday, the strategy document says aspiring member nations Serbia and Montenegro in particular could become full members by 2025, assuming they successfully implement all required reforms and commit to “fundamental values” of the European bloc.

As widely reported, the document is a product of Brussels' redoubled efforts to exercise power in a region under growing influence from Moscow and Beijing, as one of its own member nations, Britain, pulls away.

"Although Europe has identified the [Balkan] region’s problems with great clarity, the proposed responses lack teeth," wrote Dr. Florian Bieber, director of the Austria-based Centre for Southeast European Studies, in Foreign Affairs.

Calling a "renewed rivalry between Russia and the EU and the United States... intertwined with rising authoritarianism in the Balkans," Bieber suggests the EU's "updated and considerably more robust strategy" for a region teetering on democratic decline may lack adequate direction for states where corruption is endemic. Worse, he says, the document's benchmarks for measuring EU standards aren't clear.

Asked whether the European Commission is risking credibility by touting a seven-year timeline for Serbia and Montenegro — both of which continue to grapple with issues such as vote buying — Mogherini said the enlargement plan guidelines trump its hypothetical timeframes.

"The date of 2025 is a realistic perspective, and we understand that there is a value in having an idea of what could be the [timing] if things go" according to plan, she told VOA's Bosnian Service, largely echoing comments made by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers a speech during a debate on the Future of Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Feb. 6, 2018.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker delivers a speech during a debate on the Future of Europe at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, Feb. 6, 2018.

"It's a perspective — not a target, not a deadline, not a set date, but a realistic perspective for concluding negotiations for the countries that are currently negotiating," she added, calling similar timelines credible even for Balkan nations just starting the negotiations process.

Mogherini also called the new strategy document a milestone for an institution that "has had difficulty in even speaking about enlargement, and even speaking about the Western Balkans from time to time."

"The future of the European Union will be with more members than 27 after Brexit, and we want the Western Balkans to be these new members," she said. "There is no other player in the world that can offer to the people of the region — and to the people of Bosnia in particular — as much as the European Union can offer in terms of job creation, in terms of rights and freedoms, in terms of living in a normal country and having European standards. I know very well this is what the people of the region want.

"If [Balkan leaders] focus on what their people ask and expect and want more than [focusing] on divisions," it is possible, she said. "Be courageous. Make compromise. Think only on the interest of your citizens, and you will get there."

This story originated in VOA's Bosnian Service.