The European Union's enlargement commissioner has urged Western Balkan leaders to fully embrace their European future and refrain from stoking regional tensions.
Johannes Hahn, the commissioner for European neighborhood policy and enlargement negotiations, addressed the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia at the end of a one-day meeting in Sarajevo on March 16.
Hahn said the EU understands it's in its "hard-headed self-interest" to promote the troubled region's future within the 28-member bloc when there are "unprecedented levels of involvement from further east" -- an apparent reference to Russian meddling in the Balkans.
"We now have one of those windows of opportunity where either the region as a whole picks up momentum and we generate a genuinely positive narrative, or we end up in a really awkward spot, with a stream of bad news slamming the window firmly shut," Hahn told a news conference after the meeting.
Bosnian Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic said all the leaders who attended the meting were committed to EU integration and economical cooperation.
However, the countries are at different stages of efforts to join the bloc and recent domestic political clashes and tense relations between states in the region have posed obstacles to the process.
The EU said in a March 15 statement that Hahn would discuss "economic and political perspectives for the Western Balkans" with the leaders in preparation for a summit of some EU and Western Balkan nations in the Italian city of Trieste on July 12.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on March 15 that the region needed a clear message about joining the bloc, citing growing nationalism and pro-Russian sentiment in the region.
In Albania on March 14, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano urged the EU to strengthen its commitment to integrating Western Balkan countries to help counter rising nationalist tensions in the region.
"Balkan countries have a strategic importance not only for Italy, but for all Europe," he said.
With reporting by Reuters