German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that it is one of Germany's goals to see the six Western Balkan states join the European Union, but that the six countries have a "long way" to go before entering the bloc.
Merkel made the comments in Belgrade in a joint news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whom she met with on September 13 at the start of her farewell trip to the region as her mandate as head of Germany's government comes to an end.
Her discussions in Serbia focused on political and economic cooperation and the EU integration process.
Merkel will next head to neighboring Albania, where a meeting is planned with the prime ministers of Serbia and the five other Western Balkan states that are not members of the EU -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia.
German government spokeswoman Martina Fietz has said that “in addition to the bilateral talks, regional cooperation will be an important topic” of the two-day trip, including plans to create a common regional market.
After 16 years at the height of European politics, Merkel will retire at the end of her fourth term as chancellor following German elections on September 26.
Her Balkan visit also comes ahead of the next EU-Balkans summit in October.
During a meeting with Vucic last week, the German ambassador to Belgrade, Thomas Schieb, said that Merkel's Balkan visit is sending a strong signal that Serbia and the region remain high on Berlin’s agenda.
Vucic called Merkel's trip “a great honor for Serbia, and a chance to thank her for everything she had done for Serbia and the region during her long and successful term in office.”
The launch of the so-called Berlin Process by Merkel in 2014 to promote regional cooperation in the Western Balkans and European integration “created a different atmosphere and new opportunities for cooperation in the Western Balkans, making the region more peaceful and stable,” the Serbian president said.
The Western Balkan countries are at different stages of integrating with the EU.
Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having opened accession negotiations and chapters.
Albania and North Macedonia are awaiting the official opening of accession talks, while Bosnia and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.
Following a virtual conference with the leaders of the Western Balkan countries on July 5, Merkel had said she saw the six Western Balkan states as future EU member states for "geostrategic reasons."
"It is in the European Union's own interests to advance the process forward here," Merkel told reporters.
She did not name Russia and China but hinted at their influence in the region.