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EU split over expansion into Western Balkans

By Gabriela Baczynska and Peter Maushagen

SOFIA (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers disagreed on Thursday over a proposal by the bloc's executive to push for expansion into the Western Balkans, a region still scarred by ethnic wars fought in the 1990s and dogged by a reputation for lawlessness.

Meeting in Bulgaria, the EU ministers discussed for the first time the plan by the European Commission that set out 2025 as a goal for Serbia and Montenegro to join the bloc.

Hungary's Peter Szijjarto was "very much disappointed" by that target, saying the first two countries from the Western Balkan six should be admitted already in 2022.

"I think 2025 is very late and they deserve a much quicker way to integration," Budapest's foreign minister told reporters, stressing that EU entry would help relieve tensions between neighbours in a region that sits on the bloc's doorstep.

But Germany, the EU's leading power, is very reluctant, pointing to rule-of-law shortcomings in the newer member states - from Romania and Bulgaria, to Poland and Hungary.

"I've just come from Serbia and in Kosovo the situation is exceptionally difficult. We will speak frankly about this today," said German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

Serbia's refusal to recognise the independence of its former province Kosovo - something endorsed by most, though not all, EU states - is just one example of intractable regional disputes that threaten the Western Balkans' Western integration.

EU diplomats say that corruption and powerful criminal gangs that smuggle arms, drugs and migrants over European borders top a long list of problems the six Balkan hopefuls would have to crack down on if they are ever to be allowed into the EU.

Poland, Italy and Austria are among other EU countries in favour of stepping up efforts to open the bloc to the region, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence.

"Who will be first in Belgrade - China or the EU? It is that (which) we have to counteract, as it is our immediate neighbourhood," Austria's Karin Kneissl told reporters.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said he would host the heads of the Balkan states on March 1 for talks with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker on building new highways and railways to improve links with the EU.

But Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec thought that even 2025 was "not realistic" as a goal, saying the Western Balkan states would need more time to settle their disputes and meet criteria for EU entry.

France's Jean-Yves Le Drian was also cautious. "It's clear there are conditions and that those conditions are demanding."

(Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek, Alissa de Carbonnel and Tsvetelia Tsolova, writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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