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Juncker Ends Balkans Tour With Support, But No Accession Date

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (center) with Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci (left) and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Sofia on March 1.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has wrapped up his tour of the Western Balkans, urging the leaders of the six countries he visited to speed up the pace of reforms.

"These countries have the will to implement reforms necessary for EU membership," Juncker told the leaders gathered in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, on March 1.

The meeting, hosted by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, whose country presently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, followed the publication of the EU strategy on how to bring the region closer to the bloc.

Juncker has visited Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Kosovo, to relay the message that the six countries need deep reforms in order to fulfill the criteria for eventual membership in the bloc.

Juncker also highlighted as a top priority the need to boost the rule of law, as well as the settling of major bilateral issues.

Particular issues include Serbia's ties with Kosovo, border disputes, crippling ethnic tensions in Bosnia, and Macedonia's name dispute with EU and NATO neighbor Greece.

"These countries must resolve their territorial disputes before they join the EU," Juncker told the leaders gathered in Sofia on March 1.

The EU's top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn accompanied Juncker on the tour.

Mogherini, speaking earlier in the day, said that "if there's a security problem in any of these countries, then it automatically becomes a security problem for the EU."

The EU strategy document vaguely linked 2025 to possible accession, with Montenegro and Serbia leading the pack on the path to membership.

Juncker stressed that no accession date was promised but that it could "possibly happen in 2025," if all the criteria are fulfilled.

With additional reporting by dpa, AP, Reuters, and AFP