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EU Says Balkan States Could Join by 2025


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.

The European Union said Tuesday that some Western Balkan countries could be ready to join the bloc in just seven years.

Launching a new strategy for the Western Balkans region, EU officials said Tuesday Serbia and Montenegro could be full members by 2025.

"2025 is an indicative date only — it is only meant as an encouragement, so that the states concerned work hard to ensure that they follow the path." the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker told lawmakers in the EU Parliament.

"A decision must be made: either there will be expansion in the Western Balkans, or there won't be," he added. "I would like the Western Balkans to be able to enter the European Union, when the conditions are fulfilled,"

The EU is seeking to reinvigorate the membership ambitions of six states: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

Countering Russia

FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic talk to each other during a meeting with the media following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 19, 2017.
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic talk to each other during a meeting with the media following their talks in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 19, 2017.

Analysts say the 2015 migrant crisis brought home the strategic importance of the Balkans region, when hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers traveled through the region to try to reach western Europe. Tens of thousands of migrants are still stuck in the Balkan states.

The EU is also seeking to reassert its power amid growing influence from Moscow, said analyst James Ker Lindsay, professor of politics at St. Mary's University, Twickenham in London.

"There's strong Russian influence in Serbia," he said. "At a popular level Russia is commanding a lot of attention, respect, adoration even. And I think that that's a real worry. Turkey has been very active in the region as well, and of course we see the growing estrangement between Turkey and the European Union, so that becomes a worry. China's been very active in the region."

Obstacles remain

Brussels reiterated its membership demands: independent courts, freedom of the press, and tackling organized crime.

"We've seen the backsliding if you like from Hungary and Poland in recent years," said Ker-Lindsay. "But also there's very important elements about how the Single Market functions, for example."

However, it's clear that several obstacles remain before EU accession. The conflicts that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s still linger across the region. Just last month, an ethnic Serb politician, Oliver Ivanovic, was assassinated in the flashpoint Kosovan town of Mitrovica.

Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence, yet the EU's accession strategy rests on that being resolved. Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci said last week that he expects progress soon.

WATCH: EU Balkans

Balkan States Could Join EU By 2025 Amid Push to Counter Russia
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"I would not talk about days, weeks or months but I think that 2018 is a crucial year and should be a decisive one," Thaci told AFP news agency. "Otherwise, we will drag on for decades."

Brussels is hoping that reinvigorated membership talks will persuade Belgrade to move forward, said Ker-Lindsay.

"The closer you bring Serbia to the European Union, the better it is," he said. "It becomes easier I think to deal with Kosovo at that stage because many in Serbia will say, well look, if this is the last thing we have to do to get into the European Union, we've made all these other reforms, well let's just do it.' A prosperous, pro-Western Serbia is going to lead to a prosperous, pro-Western Balkans in general."

Analysts say Brussels also hopes to rejuvenate the bloc as Britain prepares to exit the EU next year.