BERLIN (AP) — Germany's foreign minister says it's in the European Union's "strategic interest" to expand in the Western Balkans because otherwise China and Russia will gain regional influence instead.

Heiko Maas said Monday that Macedonia and Albania have begun putting in place the reforms required for EU membership.

Speaking after a meeting with Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, Maas said he's "firmly convinced that the people in the Western Balkans want to live the way we do in Europe, and not the way people in China or Russia want to live."

Maas says Germany is "very, very positive about expanding the EU in the Western Balkans because we're firmly convinced it's in the strategic interest of a free Europe."

The EU could open membership talks with Albania and Macedonia next year.