EU official says Balkan membership expansion is priority

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Oliver Varhelyi, left, the EU commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, and Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian president, are seen during their meeting in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020. Varhelyi is on an official visit to the Serbian capital. (AP Photo/Marko Drobnjakovic)

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The European Union’s proposed new system for adding members is meant to reinstate the bloc’s influence in the Western Balkans, the bloc’s enlargement commissioner said Thursday.

There are worries that if the EU doesn’t do more to attract countries in the Balkans, then some may look to bolster relations with Russia and China. The bloc is already under pressure after losing the diplomatic and geopolitical clout of Britain, which left the bloc last weekend.

EU commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, who started his tour of the region in Serbia, said he wants to “reinforce” the EU’s leverage.

“With the new commission, EU enlargement policy and involvement with the Western Balkans is ever a greater priority,” Varhelyi said.

His visit comes a day after the European Commission proposed to streamline rules to avoid further delays in the membership applications of potential EU aspirants.

TheEUis pushing changes to the system it uses to add new members in a move that should make the opening of enlargement talks easier for the Balkan nations.

North Macedonia and Albania were left aghast when their hopes of starting accession talks late last year were dashed, with France insistent that the enlargement process was revamped first. Serbia and Montenegro are considered the front runners for joining the 27-nation bloc.

Over the past dozen years that were dominated by an economic crisis and the migrants crisis, the appetite for taking in new, poorer nations has dwindled within the EU.

The EU hasn’t added a member state since Croatia joined in 2013. It started out with six nations in 1958 and lost its first member state when Britain pulled out.

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