SOFIA: 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.
Poland, Italy and Austria are also among those in favour of stepping up efforts to open the EU 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.
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.
Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec thought even 2025 was "not realistic", 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)