Sofia (AFP) - Deep splits emerged in the EU Thursday over membership plans for Balkan states, with some countries warning Russia would take advantage unless the bloc sped up the accession process.
Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov warned it was now or never for expanding the EU into the Balkans as concerns grow about Moscow's influence in the bloc's eastern backyard.
Last week the European Union unveiled its new strategy for the region, which aims to give membership to some states by 2025 but insists they must first resolve all border rows.
The frontrunners to join are Montenegro and Serbia, with Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia lagging, but all are getting impatient after the EU put expansion on hold four years ago.
"If there's no enlargement now, there'll be no other time for enlargement," said Borisov, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
"Otherwise what China, Russia, Turkey are planning for the region, they will start today."
EU foreign ministers are holding talks on the Western Balkan strategy in Sofia, with national leaders set to formally endorse the plan at a special summit in the Bulgarian capital in May.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijarto said the 2025 target was "very late" for Montenegro and Serbia and echoed Borisov's warning about outside players making their move.
"It is obvious the US has a strategy on the Western Balkans, Russia has a strategy on the Western Balkans, Turkey has a strategy on the Western Balkans -- it is only the European Union which is extremely slow," he said.
"If we take it seriously that we, the European Union, would like to be the winner regarding strategies and regarding endeavours on the Western Balkans we should be much quicker."
- Deadline 'not realistic' -
But the EU is wary of admitting new members before they settle their differences, particularly in a region still bedevilled by the aftermath of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Serbia and Kosovo remain at odds 10 years after Pristina made a declaration of independence that Belgrade still rejects, while Macedonia and current EU member Greece have clashed over Macedonia's name.
The EU has also been stung by taking on new members when they were arguably not yet ready. The bloc has been dragged into an increasingly bitter maritime row between Croatia, which joined in 2014, and Slovenia.
Slovenia's Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec said it was "not realistic" to think Serbia and Montenegro would be ready for membership by 2025.
"Slovenia has had 20 years of dialogue with Croatia to find a solution regarding the border between Slovenia and Croatia and it is the same with Croatia and Serbia: 26 years," he said.
"I think it's not possible (to meet) this condition by 2025 and this can be a bit of a problem for EU enlargement and also for the Western Balkans."