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Disagreement over EU accession for Balkan countries

Sofia – EU foreign ministers have failed to agree on when non-member countries in the Western Balkans could join the European Union during a ministerial meeting in Sofia.

"Slow enlargement process"

During the two-day informal meeting, the ministers were discussing a new EU strategy on the Western Balkans laid out by the European Commission last week, which put in view 2025 as a possible accession date for the two front-runner candidates, Serbia and Montenegro.

"I'm very much disappointed with that strategy, because I think that the integration and the enlargement process should be much, much, much quicker," Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said.

"It's obvious that the US has a strategy on the Western Balkans, Russia has a strategy on the Western Balkans, Turkey does have a strategy on the Western Balkans - it's only the European Union which is extremely slow when it comes to issues in the Western Balkans."

He said that Serbia and Montenegro could join the bloc by 2022.

"All conditions must be met"

The commission's plan lays out a clear path towards EU accession for six non-EU countries on the Western Balkans: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania.

However, the EU's executive arm made clear that countries need to meet all conditions for EU accession, including solving all border disputes, as the bloc is still dealing with the fallout from an unresolved border dispute between members Slovenia and Croatia.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec warned on Thursday that even the 2025 target was "not realistic" due to ongoing border disputes among former Yugoslav countries.

"I think it's not possible to expect this condition [to be fulfilled] in 2025, and this can be a big problem for the EU enlargement," Erjavec said.

EU foreign ministers were discussing the Western Balkans amongst themselves on Thursday and were set to meet with representatives of the candidate countries on Friday.

Other topics also on agenda

The agenda on Thursday also included North Korea.

The apparent diplomatic thaw between South Korea and North Korea at the Winter Olympics was an "encouraging" development, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said, noting that the EU was continuing to work towards the denuclearization of the peninsula.

"We have seen encouraging steps during the Olympic Games," Mogherini said. "But at a certain moment the Olympic Games will end and the European Union is ready to continue its work ... to have a strong pressure on [North Korea]."

The foreign ministers also discussed Syria.

In recent days, the EU has expressed concern over the recent military escalations in Syria, including rising tensions at the Israeli border and a Turkish offensive in north Syria.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian warned that there was a "risk of a regional crisis" as the Syrian conflict was evolving.

He called for restarting the UN-led peace process and strengthening the mandate of UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn urged EU countries to support a UN Security Council draft resolution by Kuwait and Sweden calling for a ceasefire to enable humanitarian aid to be delivered to those in besieged areas, including the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta.