EU leaders told their frustrated Balkan counterparts at a summit on Wednesday that the bloc remains committed to allowing them to join, but did not offer any concrete progress on their stalled membership proposals.
The 27-nation club spoke out about billions of euros worth of financial support for its eastern neighbors at a rain-soaked gathering at Brdo Castle in Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency.
Brussels wants to show that it remains the best hope in the region.
But there will be no progress in meeting the leaders of Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo on the tortuous path to membership.
And concerns are growing that frustration with years of waiting could bring some candidate countries closer to Russia and China.
“We want to send a very clear message and that message is that the Western Balkans belong to the European Union, we want them in the European Union,” said the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, when she arrived for the talks.
“We are a European family … and I am deeply convinced that we share the same destiny,” she said.
‘Hold out your hand’ or else
The EU’s push for enlargement, once a key policy for the bloc, has stalled in recent years. Some wealthier members fear unleashing a new wave of migration and some applicants are struggling with necessary reforms, especially in democratic norms.
“In Latvia, the accession process to the European Union changed the rules of the game in terms of allowing reform and of course in the Western Balkans they still have a way to go,” said Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins.
However, he warned, “either Europe reaches out and draws these countries to us or someone else will reach out and push countries in a different direction.”
This reflects the EU’s growing concern over advances by Moscow and Beijing, which have shipped millions of coronavirus vaccines to the region.
Moscow has deep cultural ties to other Orthodox nations, while Beijing has made significant loans in the region, including a controversial $ 1 billion for a highway, which Montenegro is struggling to repay.
In response, the EU is promoting an “unprecedented” economic investment package of € 30 billion ($ 35 billion) for the region.
Officials also promise “tangible” improvements for the Balkan population, such as increasing vaccination rates to match EU levels this year and ending telephone roaming charges.
This can be a cold consolation for candidate countries that are still resentful, after France, Denmark and the Netherlands initially held accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia in 2019.
Since then, Bulgaria has become the main obstacle to progress, refusing to allow North Macedonia to start the process due to a dispute over history and language.
The leaders of the two countries met with their French and German counterparts, but no progress was made ahead of elections in Bulgaria next month.
“I have no illusions about a quick accession to the EU,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose country applied for EU membership in 2009.
“The political needs of the EU are such that the enlargement of the Balkans is not a dominant or popular issue.”
EU leaders will close the summit with a final statement, but it was only after fierce haggling that they agreed to say that the bloc “reconfirms its commitment to the enlargement process” in a draft seen by AFP.
Diplomats rejected a demand by Slovenia to commit to absorb the applicants by 2030.
Brussels scored a small diplomatic victory in the run-up to the summit by mediating an agreement to ease an outbreak of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
Former enemies disagreed after Kosovo banned cars with Serbian license plates from entering its territory.
Kosovo proclaimed its independence from Serbia in 2008, a decade after a war between independence-seeking Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces.
About 100 countries, including all but five EU members, recognized the move, but not Serbia or its allies China and Russia.
The dialogue promoted by the EU between the two Balkan neighbors, started a decade ago, has not achieved the normalization of their ties.