Hungarian Prime Minister and vociferous EU critic Viktor Orban has used a visit to Serbia to press for the bloc to accept that country and thus unlock the Western Balkans to inject "new energy" before it's too late.
Speaking after a meeting in Belgrade on July 8 with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Orban said that without enlargement the European Union could stagnate and even disintegrate.
"I unequivocally support Serbia's membership in the EU, because the entire Western Balkans is behind it," Orban said, adding that "Serbia is a key country [and] the EU should understand that."
Serbia is the most populous and economically powerful of the so-called Western Balkan Six countries remaining outside the European Union: former Yugoslav states Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia, plus Albania.
Populists who frequently play the nationalist card, Orban and Vucic are both regarded cautiously in Brussels for their perceived backsliding on democratic institutions as they cultivate deeper ties with Moscow.
"Enlargement should be the most important project of the European Union," Orban said in Belgrade. "It should not be delayed, but accelerated. If we speak the language of numbers, today the EU has a much greater interest in Serbia's membership in the union than Serbia in EU membership."
Momentum among many of the EU's 27 member states for enlargement has flagged in recent years, leaving candidate countries like Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro in the wings.
Bosnia and Kosovo have additional obstacles to eventual membership.
"There are few such friends," Vucic said, thanking Orban for his support, "We will see to it that we keep that friendship."
Orban has drawn the European Union's ire over his dominant Fidesz party's consolidation of power, including controversial moves to rein in the media and NGOs.
He recently signed into law a controversial law banning materials that could be seen as promoting homosexuality or gender change to minors in a move that has been condemned in Brussels and could threaten funding channels.
In a statement seemingly aimed at trolling Orban's EU critics, Vucic suggested at the joint press conference that "Everyone in the region perceives you as a stabilizing factor."
The enlargement malaise prompted lame-duck German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week to warn that "it is in the European Union's very own interests to drive the [accession] process forward" in the Western Balkans.
Russia and China have sought to drive a wedge between some Balkan states and the European Union, including through diplomatic and economic sweeteners.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a Balkan-focused conference this week that "Our first priority is to accelerate the enlargement agenda across the region and support our Western Balkan partners in their work to deliver on the necessary reforms to advance on their European path."