EU Chief Warns of Balkan Wars If Bloc Neglects Accession Process

(Bloomberg) -- The European Union should be serious about accession talks with western Balkan countries or risks reigniting hostilities at the site of the continent’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.

The bloc should consider “the idea of pre-accession” for candidate countries to give them hope and help them improve their economies before entry, Juncker said in a speech to Austrian lawmakers in Vienna on Friday. His comments preceded elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina and follow a referendum in the Republic of Macedonia to change the country’s name to end a dispute with Greece that may open the path to EU entry.

With a struggle for influence playing out between Russia on one side and the EU and NATO on the other, the area that once made up Yugoslavia is Europe’s most volatile region. While Moscow opposes the further expansion of the military alliance into what it sees as its sphere of influence, Western nations see their integration as a way to guarantee stability, open new markets and boost the living standards of the region’s 18 million people.

“If we rob the western Balkan states of their accession perspective, if in this highly complex European area the impression emerges that we’re not serious about that perspective, we will later, or rather sooner, again experience what we had in the Balkans in the 1990s,” Juncker said. The earliest entry by any country won’t come before 2025, he said.

Only two former Yugoslav states, Slovenia and Croatia, have joined the EU. Serbia, the biggest, has so far opened 14 so-called negotiating chapters, but its biggest hurdle is normalizing ties with Kosovo, which split away after a war almost 20 years ago and unilaterally declared independence in 2008.

Bosnia, where a fragile peace has been held for the last two decades after a U.S.-brokered agreement, is seen especially vulnerable to destabilization, as Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has for years threatened with possibility of secession of his entity, known as Republika Srpska.

“We need to take care of the western Balkan intensively, help where it’s needed, warn before things go wrong and make sure that it’s well understood that all border conflicts must be resolved before accession,” Juncker said. “We mustn’t import instability from the western Balkans to the EU, we must export EU stability to the western Balkans.”

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