EU leaders have reaffirmed the bloc's commitment to the stalled enlargement process for six Western Balkans states, but they brushed aside calls for a concrete timeline at a summit in Slovenia on October 6.
The European Commission has repeatedly said the future of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia lies in the 27-member bloc. But divisions among EU states about taking in new members and the slow pace of reform in the six hopefuls has put enlargement on ice for years.
"In all frankness, there is discussion among the 27 about our capacity to take in new members," European Council President Charles Michel told a news conference following the one-day summit between Balkan and EU leaders in Slovenia.
In a joint declaration, the EU leaders said that the bloc "reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and welcomes the commitment of the Western Balkans partners to the European perspective."
Several EU members led by France have held up the enlargement process out of concern about further expanding the bloc with less-developed states with weak institutions. The club has brought in 13 countries since 2004, most of them less-wealthy former communist states, causing expansion fatigue among some members. Croatia was the last nation to join the EU when its accession was completed in 2013.
Western Balkan countries are at different stages of integrating with the bloc.
Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having opened accession negotiations and chapters. Albania and North Macedonia are awaiting the official opening of accession talks, while Bosnia and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.
Addressing the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reiterated that the Western Balkan countries belong in the EU.
"We want them in the European Union, we are one European family," she said. "We share the same history, we share the same values, and I'm deeply convinced we share the same destiny too."
"I know that still work has to be done, for example, on the rule of law, on the judiciary, on the freedom of the media, to name some. But I think we should also acknowledge the effort that has been done in the past and the progress that has been done," von der Leyen added.
French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need to show the region's countries that they are on a short-term path toward the EU.
"Our wish is to give the Balkans a [European] perspective again in the short-term," Macron told reporters after the summit, saying that would help European stability.
However, there are few illusions about the hurdles to bring the Western Balkans in to the EU, which expects stringent reforms to bring rule of law, anti-corruption efforts, organized crime fighting, functioning democratic institutions, and freedom of the media into line with the bloc’s standards. Meanwhile, disputes between Serbia and Kosovo have only raised questions about their commitment and qualifications to join the bloc.
Acknowleding the situation, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said his country would not be able to join the EU unless it resolves outstanding issues with Kosovo.
"There is enlargement perspective, but it is clear that not all [EU] member states have same appetite," he told reporters.
"Without resolving issues with Pristina, Serbia would not be able to join EU," said Vucic, who met with Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti on the sidelines of the summit. They were joined by Macron and outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Macron and Merkel also met on the sidelines of the summit with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, whose country has blocked North Macedonia's opening accession talks because of a dispute over language and national identity. The talks was aimed at overcoming the impasse, according to a spokesperson for the German government.
Von der Leyen conceded that the blocked accession talks of North Macedonia and Albania were damaging the EU's credibility in the region.
States like Germany and Austria worry that failing to live up to EU commitments to move on with accession could push the Western Balkans states into the arms of other international players, as Russia and China seek to expand their influence in the region.
However, Merkel on October 6 rejected calls to set a date for the accession of Western Balkans countries, telling reporters: "I don't really believe in setting dates, I believe in making good on our promises: Once the conditions are met the accession can take place."
A deadline would put the EU under pressure, whether the Western Balkans fulfilled the conditions set out by the 27-nation bloc or not, the chancellor said.
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, the summit host, said EU enlargement is "strategic" for the bloc.
"If the EU doesn't expand, others will expand," he told German broadcaster ARD, referring to Russia and China.
In an interview with RFE/RL last month, Gabriel Escobar, the deputy assistant secretary of state overseeing U.S policy toward the Western Balkans, said the United States would make a renewed push to help the countries of the region achieve EU integration.
On the eve of the EU-Western Balkans summit, EU leaders gathered at Brdo Castle in Slovenia for a dinner where they were to discuss U.S.-EU relations, China, and the situation in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of the country in August.
"It will be the occasion to address the EU's role on the international stage -- especially after the latest geopolitical developments in Afghanistan, in the Indo-Pacific, also our relations with China," EU Council chief Charles Michel said at the start of the sit-down.