The pro-Western president of Montenegro, who has defied Russia to steer his small country into NATO, has warned that the integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union is crucial for the bloc to protect itself from growing Russian and Chinese political and economic influence in the region.

Milo Djukanovic told The Associated Press in an interview that Britain's chaotic divorce from the EU and other crises in the bloc have apparently diminished the union's enthusiasm to accept new members, but that Europe must not hand over the strategic region to other global players.

Djukanovic says: "The question is not whether Russia, China or a third country have their interests in the Balkans. The question is why Europe is handing over that region to anyone else."