Enlargement will protect Western Balkans from malign influences -EU's Michel

FILE PHOTO: Denmark hosts a meeting on the future of the EU, in Copenhagen

ZAGREB (Reuters) - Enlargement of the European Union will make the wealthy 27-bloc safer and more prosperous and also secure stability and peace for the Western Balkan countries, European Council President Charles Michel said on Thursday.

Last week, the EU's executive commission recommended that Ukraine and Moldova should start negotiations on EU membership pending the fulfillment of outstanding conditions, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also recommended that Georgia should receive the status of membership candidate.

National EU leaders should decide in mid-December on whether to accept the Commission's recommendation. Any such decision requires unanimity of the bloc's 27 members, with Hungary seen as the main potential obstacle.

On Thursday, Michel arrived in Croatia's capital Zagreb for talks on the strategic agenda, including enlargement, with premiers of the host country, Malta, Poland and Italy. He said EU member states needed to achieve unity on strategic matters.

Asked if he sees a threat of Russia steering a new conflict in the Western Balkans to divert the attention from its war in Ukraine, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy alleged to reporters, Michel said:

"We cannot exclude the temptations by Russia or even by others to try to interfere, to try to influence and that's why we are absolutely convinced that making progress on the EU path is really important for making stability and for making sure that this region will be peaceful."

Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said there could be a few hot spots of instability in southeastern Europe but Croatia strongly supported the EU path of its neighbors.

"Only the firm anchoring of our neighbors in the European processes will guarantee the peace, security, stability and better multi-lateral relations," Plenkovic said. "The last thing the EU needs is another war in the southeastern Europe."

Croatia was the last country to join the EU in 2013, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put enlargement back at the top of the EU's agenda.

Serbia and Bosnia's autonomous Serb Republic are neutral regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and keep close relations with Moscow.

(Reporting by Antonio Bronic and Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Toby Chopra)