In Brief

EU split over expansion plans

European leaders are divided over enlargement into the Balkans, fearing it could awaken dark forces

European foreign ministers have clashed over ambitious plans for the EU to expand into the western Balkans.

The European Commission has earmarked six states to join the bloc within the next seven years: Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania.

With Europe facing the challenge of Brexit, high levels of Eurosceptic populism across the continent and a recent Eurobarometer poll showing that more than 60% of Germans, French and Belgians opposed further expansion, it would seem an odd time to step up plans for new members.

The hope in Brussels is that the new members could help to strengthen controls on migration while offering an effective method of countering Moscow’s growing influence in the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Poland, Italy and Austria are among those in favour of including the region, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence.

Following the meeting of foreign ministers on Thursday, Austria’s Karin Kneissl told reporters: “Who will be first in Belgrade - China or the EU? It is that we have to counteract, as it is our immediate neighbourhood.”

However, plans for the largest expansion of the EU in two decades “could go down badly with existing member states, as it would mark a significant population increase without the boost in GDP to match”, says the Daily Express.

According to Reuters, Germany is “very reluctant” to expedite the EU’s expansion timetable, pointing to rule-of-law shortcomings in newer member states including Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.

Even with the full backing of all 27 EU members, “it will still be a huge challenge for any of the six states to qualify for membership”, says the Financial Times, citing their “links to organised crime, corruption at every level of government, and widespread meddling in the media”.

Bringing states ruled by Balkan strongmen into the EU would also expand the ranks of leaders “closer to Hungary's Viktor Orban”, says Toby Vogel of the Center for European Policy.

Even critics in Brussels “contend the move would fan the flames of nationalism and populism, and give Orban new allies in the bloc”, reports Deutsche Welle.

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