Reuters International

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier takes part during the official opening of the Germany pavilion as part the Dual Year Germany-Mexico, in Mexico City, Mexico June 6, 2016. REUTERS/Henry Romero

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TIRANA (Reuters) - Germany on Tuesday joined Albania's Western partners in calling for an end to delays in negotiations on reforming the judiciary, a condition for starting talks on joining the European Union.

In 18 months of negotiations aided by European and U.S. experts, Albania's main political parties have come close to a draft agreement. But the talks have foundered on opposition fears that the independence of the judiciary would not be guaranteed.

Reinforcing a message voiced by EU and U.S. leaders, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Albania's EU future could be delayed if it failed to make progress on judiciary reform by autumn, when the EU is expected to review its progress towards membership.

"I very much hope that the judiciary reform does not become an obstacle on the road of Albania towards the European Union," Steinmeier told reporters in Tirana. "If the judiciary reform is not completed, the membership process cannot gain speed.

"We need a democratic Albania with an independent judiciary able to fight corruption," he said, according to an Albanian translation of his remarks.

Praising the NATO member's reforms in many areas, Steinmeier said they would not be complete until the judiciary is overhauled. He urged the political parties to work towards compromise.

Albania and most former Yugoslav countries - Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo - want to follow their neighbours Slovenia and Croatia in joining the EU.

With the EU suffering its own crises and delaying new memberships for some years, Germany offered a plan two years ago to bring the Balkan countries closer to the bloc, focussing on youth initiatives, economic ties and transport links.

(Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Larry King)

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