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European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 18, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

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By Robert-Jan Bartunek and Robin Emmott

STRASBOURG/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union acted on Tuesday to reinvigorate the membership ambitions of six Balkan states and reclaim the region as its own amid growing Russian and Chinese influence, setting 2025 as a goal for Serbia and Montenegro to join.

Seeking to breathe fresh life into the EU with Britain set to leave, the European Commission laid out a strategy to bring Western Balkan nations into the fold if they achieve required reforms, marking a change after years of fading interest.

"The door is open ... There is a clear path for the Western Balkans to finally join the European Union," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia as she presented the plan at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"The future of the Union is not bound to be at 27," she said, referring to the current membership level of the bloc, discounting Britain, which is due to leave in 2019.

Serbia's Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said it was a call to "work every day from now ... to become part of the European family of nations".

Johannes Hahn, the EU's enlargement commissioner, earlier urged the bloc not to repeat past mistakes, alluding to what many believe was 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.

Brussels has been growing worried about Russia’s assertiveness on its borders since Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 - concerns exacerbated in the Balkans after Montenegro accused Russia of supporting a failed coup in 2016.

Meanwhile, Chinese investment in the region, though welcomed by governments, is seen as undermining EU standards because it does not come with the same stringent requirements as EU aid.

EU "LIP SERVICE"?

Underlining the renewed enthusiasm for the Balkans, top EU officials said there was no alternative but for the countries to join the European Union. Support for EU membership ranges from roughly 75 percent in Kosovo to 52 percent in Serbia.

The EU's Balkan strategy aims to show that membership is certain if the region's states meet EU demands including establishing independent courts, a free press and breaking up crime rings that have badly weakened governments.

Jasmin Mujanovic, a U.S.-based political analyst, warned that the EU strategy would run into the same problems if there was not a new plan to help reform the Western Balkans.

"There's a lot of lip service to addressing what are the structural problems in the region, which is corruption, clientilism and entrenched illiberal elites. But it's unclear to me as to what exactly they propose to do about this."

Integration means increasing access to EU funds and is designed to foster reforms to lure investors, boost growth and encourage stability in a region still grappling with the legacy of Yugoslavia's socialist planned economy.

Albania and Montenegro are already members of the U.S-led NATO alliance while Macedonia is likely to be offered NATO membership, often seen as a springboard to EU membership, if it can overcome a dispute over its name with Greece.

EU leaders will embrace the 2025 timeline at a special Western Balkans summit in May in Sofia, the Commission said.

Serbia and Montenegro are the most advanced in the accession process but Hahn said that could easily change if Serbia did not recognise the independence of Kosovo, its former province.

Belgrade's ally Russia and five EU states have also refused to recognise Kosovo, including Spain, which is trying to contain its own separatists in Catalonia.

Kosovo's Integration Minister, Dhurata Hoxha, said it was important that the European Commission stressed Kosovo's status as an independent country.

"The fact that the EU treats Kosovo's accession to EU as separate from Serbia for me is the recognition of our independence despite that some of the EU members states do not recognise us," Hoxha said.

(Reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo, Matt Robinson and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Fatos Bytyci in Pristina, Writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Andrew Heavens)

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Reuters