By Michael Shields and Georgina Prodhan
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's new Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz will champion European Union membership for qualifying Balkan countries when he meets EU counterparts next week, he told Reuters on Friday.
It will be the first formal meeting of EU foreign ministers for Kurz, just 27 and a rising star in the People's Party who got the top foreign policy job last month in a cabinet reshuffle after September elections.
"My accent will be on EU expansion in the western Balkans," Kurz, the youngest foreign minister in the 28-nation EU, said in an interview in his office adorned with modern art and overlooking Vienna's Minorite church and the chancellery.
"We have lots of countries that, thank God, have prospects for entry. Entry prospects bring stability but also the will to reform, and the region needs both urgently," he said ahead of the EU talks in Brussels starting on Monday.
Neutral Austria, whose ties to the region run deep from the days of the Habsburg empire, acknowledges that countries need to meet strict standards to join the EU, "but we want to be a strong partner that contributes to having these countries fulfil the criteria as quickly as possible."
The EU rewarded Serbia last year for improving ties with foe Kosovo by agreeing to membership talks that start next week. The EU has also agreed to start talks with Kosovo on closer ties.
Croatia, Serbia's wartime foe during the collapse of Yugoslavia, became the EU's 28th member last July, joining Austria's neighbour Slovenia which is already part of the club.
Montenegro has begun talks on joining the EU and Macedonia is a candidate for membership, although its efforts to join have been blocked by a dispute with neighbouring Greece over Macedonia's name, which is shared by a Greek province.
Albania has so far been denied EU candidate status because of its failure to pass necessary legislation, while Bosnia's bid to join is on hold pending reform of its constitution.
Kurz said the Balkans remain Austria's main focus for peacekeeping operations, although Vienna is also considering sending soldiers to support forces in Central African Republic.
The former French colony descended into chaos after a mostly Muslim rebel coalition seized power in March, unleashing killings and looting that sparked revenge attacks by Christian militia.
Kurz met Defence Minister Gerald Klug on Friday to coordinate potential foreign missions beyond the 800 men and women it has deployed abroad after withdrawing peacekeepers last year from the Golan Heights amid escalating fighting.
Austria aims to bring that number back up to the 1,100 it had before the Golan withdrawal. Austria has nearly 400 soldiers deployed in Kosovo and 200 in Bosnia.
"The western Balkans is the decisive region. It is our top priority. We have to provide any support we can," said Kurz, a former state secretary in charge of integrating the migrant community.
Kurz, who sports a mane of brown hair and shuns a tie when not representing his country, is former head of his party's youth wing who joined the cabinet in 2011. Initially met with scepticism, he has since become a popular, hands-on politician.
(Additional reporting by Angelika Gruber, editing by Alister Doyle)