Balkan countries could join the EU in 2025, but only if they resolve all outstanding border disputes, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker says.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday warned Balkan countries hoping to join the EU that none will be invited until they have resolved all border disputes with their neighbours.
Croatia and Slovenia — both EU members — are locked in a border dispute stemming from the breakup of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. One point of dispute is an international ruling granting Slovenia unhindered access to the Adriatic Sea.
"There can be no further accession for Western Balkans countries without border disputes having first been resolved," Juncker, the head of the bloc's executive arm, told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.
"This gamble of saying that we will solve the problem some time after accession, will not take place a second time, not with me."
Looking forward to an open debate with @AndrejPlenkovic on the #FutureofEurope. Good neighbourly relations underpin stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans and Croatia's impressive efforts in achieving accession can make it a model for others who seek EU membership. pic.twitter.com/YhZ4H12tBc— EP President Tajani (@EP_President) February 6, 2018
Juncker's warning came after a speech to the European Parliament by Croatia Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.
The prospect of EU membership has been a powerful incentive for reform in the Western Balkans region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s, but tensions still linger.
Serbia and Montenegro, the latter a member of NATO, are well-placed to join should the 28-nation bloc open its doors again to new members. Croatia was the last country to join, almost five years ago.
Juncker said last year that he wanted Serbia and Montenegro to join by 2025 but warned on Tuesday against too much "excitement" over the prospect.
He said it was merely an "indicative" date for Serbia and Montenegro, the first of six countries in the region covered by a European Commission report on enlargement of the bloc that is due to be released later Tuesday.
.@JunckerEU #EPlenary “We are not saying #WesternBalkans have to join #EU by 2025. This is an indicative date, a perspective to motivate countries to continue reforms. And let’s be clear: no country can join the EU before they solve bilateral disputes.” pic.twitter.com/S4GtVn2W5l— Mina Andreeva (@Mina_Andreeva) February 6, 2018
"It is wrong if it is claimed that I or the Commission have said that Serbia's and Montenegro's accession must be in place by 2025," Juncker told MEPs.
"No, this is an indicative date, an encouragement date, so that the people concerned can consistently set out on their way."
Macedonia has met many conditions for membership, but its candidacy has been held up by a dispute with Greece over the tiny Balkans republic's name. Albania also hopes to become a member of Europe's rich club. The chances of Kosovo or Bosnia joining anytime soon seem distant.
Further east, Turkey is also a candidate for EU membership but its accession talks are at a standstill.
Western Balkan countries could be next to join the EU. Discover what the EU is doing to facilitate their accession and how much progress has already been made.https://t.co/pF1rMBWp2E pic.twitter.com/TypP8Bry15— European Parliament (@Europarl_EN) January 31, 2018
Austria, France and Germany are notably cool on Turkey joining, while Manfred Weber, the head of the European People's Party — the biggest bloc in the European Parliament — insisted that the EU should remain a Christian club.
"Our democracies, welfare states and social market economies could only arise because of our Christian values of responsibility, solidarity and freedom," he said. "There will only be a Europe that sticks to its Christian heritage or no Europe at all."
EU leaders will hold a summit in Bulgaria in May with the leaders of the six Balkan nations involved in the report.
Juncker ruled out any enlargement during his five-year tenure when he took the helm of the EU's executive arm in 2014 — and in fact the bloc is set to lose a member, Britain, next year.