EU states reassert membership promise to six Balkan states

Informal meeting before the EU-Balkans summit in Brdo

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union governments reaffirmed on Tuesday their promise to allow six Balkan countries to one day join the bloc, nudging the EU towards finally opening talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

For over a year, the EU's plan to build a "ring of friends" from Ukraine to Tunisia by offering closer ties, trade and aid has been paralysed, in part because European politicians fear a backlash over migration. The Balkan states include Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia.

"The Council reaffirms its commitment to enlargement, which remains a key policy of the European Union," the bloc's 27 European affairs ministers said in a policy statement. "The Council reiterates the EU's unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans," the bloc added.

A year ago, EU governments were unable to agree upon a statement that was due to boost the EU's strategy to bring in the six membership hopefuls.

Negotiations on a common EU position were also fraught this year as EU states worried about repeating the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the poorly managed migration of eastern European workers to Britain that turned many Britons against the EU.

Bulgaria's new government, which was approved on Monday, must still lift its predecessor's veto on North Macedonia starting EU membership talks and resolve a dispute over history and language. Albania's progress is formally tied by the EU to North Macedonia.

"The Council looks forward to the holding of the first intergovernmental conferences with the Republic of North Macedonia and with Albania as soon as possible," the statement said, referring to membership talks.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)