Serbia and Montenegro are likely be the next countries to join the European Union, possibly by 2025, the bloc’s official in charge of membership bids said in an interview.
The European Union is launching a diplomatic effort to accelerate steps to bring six countries in the Western Balkans into the EU fold after years of stop-start progress.
"It is time to finish the work of 1989," European Commissioner Johannes Hahn told Reuters, referring to the EU’s eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"We have set 2025 as an indicative date for Serbia and Montenegro, which is realistic but also very ambitious."
Serbia is seen as the lynchpin and the EU hopes Belgrade’s influence in the Balkans could help others reform.
Hahn is set to visit Serbia in February after publishing the Commission’s official Balkan strategy on Feb. 6, followed by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is expected to visit all six countries in a gesture of support.
Hahn will also travel to Washington next month to meet U.S. State Department officials to outline the EU’s Balkan push.
With neighboring Bulgaria holding the EU’s rotating presidency from January to June, European Union leaders will hold a special Balkan summit in Sofia in May. Britain is also set to host another top-level Balkan gathering in July.
In another sign of momentum, Macedonia could be offered an invitation to join the U.S.-led NATO military alliance if it can resolve a dispute with Greece over the former Yugoslav republic’s name, NATO diplomats say.
Hahn said he was confident the issue could eventually be resolved following United Nations talks this month. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in a visit to Macedonia on Wednesday, also said he saw hope for resolving the name issue.
Obstacles to meeting EU membership terms abound, however.
The six Balkan countries’ banking systems and judiciaries are weak, and incomes in the region are 30 percent of those in the euro zone, according to the International Monetary Fund.