European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker says the European Union should offer a clear path to membership to Western Balkan nations to help prevent them from returning to the ethnic strife that afflicted the region in the 1990s.
While making clear that EU enlargement will not be considered during the current commission mandate -- which ends in 2019 -- Juncker on January 12 said the next commission term -- which ends in 2024 -- will "certainly have to take a closer and targeted look at this."
"It is extremely important to ensure that the Western Balkans obtain and have confirmed once again a clear European perspective," he said, speaking at the official launch of the six-month Bulgarian EU presidency in the capital, Sofia.
"Otherwise, the danger exists in this very complicated region of Europe that we may be looking at possible events that could hark back to early nineties of the previous century," he added.
The countries of the Western Balkans, and specifically those of the former Yugoslavia, were rocked by violent ethnic and religious conflicts in the 1990s.
The Balkan wars, which erupted in 1991 and lasted for nearly a decade, killed an estimated 140,000 people and led to the breakup of Yugoslavia into the successor states Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia and Montenegro.
Serbia and Montenegro broke up and became separate states in 2006. Kosovo declared itself independent from Serbia two years later, a move Belgrade has never recognized.
Slovenia and Croatia have become members of the EU, while the other states are in various stages of seeking to join the bloc.
Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, has said it wants to use its presidency to help promote the hopes of Western Balkan nations for eventual EU membership.