The six Western Balkan countries that remain outside the European Union could join the bloc "in our generation," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said as she laid out a new strategy to integrate the region.
The strategy, unveiled by the European Commission on February 6, is meant to give a clear view toward EU accession to Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia.
“It is clear today and that is [the] message -- we will share a common future inside our European Union," Mogherini said in Strasbourg.
"Let's bring the Western Balkans inside the European Union not in a far away future but in our generation," she added.
Among the six Western Balkan countries, the commission considers Serbia and Montenegro as front-runners toward accession and the new strategy says they could be allowed in by 2025 if they meet all the conditions.
For Serbia that includes finalizing a "comprehensive, legally binding normalization agreement" with Kosovo, it says.
Mogherini insisted that 2025 was not a "target date" or a "deadline."
“It is a realistic perspective to conclude, complete the accession process for those that are currently negotiating, but also for others that might start negotiating in the near future,” she said. “And personally I would expect others to start negotiations in the coming months."
'Ambitious But Achievable'
Earlier, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament that it was an "indicative date; an encouragement so that the parties concerned work hard to follow that path."
Juncker also insisted that "there can be no further accession for Western Balkans countries without border disputes having first been resolved."
EU member states Croatia and Slovenia are still locked in a border dispute stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
"This gamble of saying that we will solve the problem some time after accession, will not take place a second time, not with me," Juncker said.
Macedonia and EU-member Greece are engaged in UN-mediated talks to resolve a 27-year-old dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav republic.
The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has produced agreements in areas such as freedom of movement, justice, and the status of the Serbian minority in Kosovo -- as well as enabling Serbia to start EU accession talks and Brussels to sign an Association Agreement with Kosovo.
The new EU strategy will focus on strengthening the rule of law, security and migration, socioeconomic development, transport and energy connectivity, digital affairs, and the developing reconciliation and good-neighborly relations among the six Balkan countries.
Juncker said that the bloc must help these countries to move toward accession.
“All are still far away from meeting the conditions," Juncker said. "But we must reach out our hands toward our partners in the Western Balkans, we must help them ... to take this difficult path."
In Belgrade, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Serbia would work hard to fulfill the "ambitious but achievable" plan, insisting that Serbia does not want a "frozen conflict" with Kosovo.
EU leaders are set to hold a summit in Bulgaria in May with the leaders of the six Western Balkan countries involved in the report.