German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues a farewell trip to the Balkans with a stop on September 14 in Tirana, where she is scheduled to meet Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and the leaders of four other Western Balkan states that strive for membership in the European Union.
Merkel, whose mandate as head of the German government is coming to an end as she prepares to retire after German elections later this month, began her two-day trip to the region on September 13 in Serbia.
She said one of Germany's goals is to see the six Western Balkan states join the European Union, but they 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 after discussions focused on political and economic cooperation and the EU integration process.
She said EU members should keep in mind that it is in the EU's "absolute geostrategic interest" to advance the integration process.
She did not name Russia and China but said there are "influences from other regions in the world and if the European Union doesn't move fast enough...then of course one is forced to arrange oneself with other partners."
As Germany's chancellor, she said she always makes it clear to other EU members "how important it is for the European Union to get closer to [the Balkan] countries.'
Merkel praised the progress made thus far but also encouraged 'further steps toward the rule of law, democracy, and plurality of civil society.'
The six Balkan countries have for decades sought EU membership, but the bloc's interest in enlargement has stalled. Slovenia, which holds the EU rotating presidency, is preparing a summit of countries from the region in October to relaunch the enlargement process.
The Western Balkan countries are at different stages of the process.
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-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.
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."
Merkel is "undoubtedly the true leader of Europe," Vucic said. The former member of a radical nationalist party added that he has "fear" over who will replace her.
Germany is holding general elections on September 26. The front-runner in voter surveys is German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
With reporting by AFP, AP, dpa, and Reuters
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