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TRIESTE, Italy – Italy warned Wednesday that the European Union must keep its doors open to eventual membership for Western Balkan countries or risk allowing Russia and other global powers to increase their influence in the region.
Premier Paolo Gentiloni said enlarging the EU "isn't around the corner" but must be held out as a concrete possibility for aspirants Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Gentiloni was speaking at the end of the fourth EU-Western Balkans summit, held Wednesday in the northern port city of Trieste, a symbolic bridge city between the EU and the Balkans.
During the meeting, the European Commission announced new funding to boost economic growth in the region. Balkan leaders, meanwhile, signed a treaty on integrating their transport networks and adopted a plan to create a regional economic area, Gentiloni said.
The European Union is keen to show it's still committed to the Balkans even though the official enlargement process is on hold until 2019 and the bloc itself is fraught with its own problems — Brexit and tamping down migration leading the list.
The EU's continued interest has been fueled by reports of Russia's growing influence in the Balkans, a region that Moscow considers a traditional area of interest.
Russian efforts have been mostly visible in Serbia, where there are Moscow-funded news outlets and boosted economic and military ties between the two countries.
Serbia remains Russia's last ally in the region after another historic partner, Montenegro, made a decisive turn toward the west by joining NATO this year.
Gentiloni didn't mention Russia by name, but said Italy and Germany — the region's biggest trading partners — cannot allow others to fill the void that will be created if the EU remains indefinitely closed to new members.
"Naturally, there are other regional or global powers that are very interested in having an influence in this region," he said.
The presidency of the EU-Western Balkans portfolio now shifts to Britain, which has agreed to host the summit next year even as it plots its own exit from the European Union.
Gentiloni acknowledged it would be "curious" if actual political enlargement were on the 2018 agenda, saying that for now the discussions in the forum are almost entirely about economic integration.
The EU also fears renewed instability in the Balkans, which went through a bloodbath during its 1990s ethnic wars.
"Political stability in the region is also political stability for us," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the start of the summit.
Tensions and stepped-up nationalist rhetoric have been simmering between Serbia and Croatia, as well as between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. The split hasn't been recognized by Belgrade.
There have also been political tensions in Macedonia and an attempted coup in Montenegro during its October election that was allegedly orchestrated by Russia to avert Montenegro's NATO bid.
Even EU member states Croatia and Slovenia have been involved in a territorial dispute stemming from the 1990s breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia doesn't recognize an international arbitration ruling last month on its border dispute with Slovenia.
Nicole Winfield reported from Rome, and Jovana Gec from Belgrade, Serbia.