Leaders from the European Union and six Western Balkan nations came together for a summit on July 12 to exchange ideas on how step up cooperation and enhance the region's chances of eventual accession into the 28-member bloc.
The EU-Western Balkans Summit, held in the Italy's Adriatic port of Trieste, brought together Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, as well as EU members Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were among the leaders present at the summit -- the fourth such meeting since 2014.
"The future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union, a Union open to those European countries which respect its values and are committed to promoting them," a final statement from host country Italy said.
The summit agreed on seven new "connectivity projects with a total investment of over 500 million euros ($570 million)," including 194 million euros ($221 million) in EU grants and loans from the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the statement said.
The summit pledged a further EU grant of 11.4 million euros ($13 million) for energy and transport projects in the region.
The region's countries were also urged to "accelerate" efforts to create a common economic and trade area.
Ahead of the summit, Merkel said the EU had a duty to move the region "slowly but surely" toward the bloc, more than 25 years after Yugoslavia disintegrated in war and newly-independent states emerged.
"Political stability in the region means political stability for us too," Merkel said. "We know this from experience."
Western Balkan countries, however, remain skeptical of such meetings, worried that they are meant to appease them instead of helping them toward their goal of eventually joining the EU.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said in closing remarks that the EU must keep its doors open to the region or risk allowing Russia and other global powers to increase their influence there.
Gentiloni admitted that EU enlargement "isn't around the corner" but said it nevertheless must be held out as a concrete possibility for the region's countries.
"Naturally there are other regional or global powers that are very interested in having an influence in this region," Gentiloni said.
Before the summit, Gentiloni, Macron, and Merkel met on a boat moored off Trieste. Their discussions focused on the growing wave of migrants reaching Italy's southern shores from North Africa.
With reporting by dpa, Reuters, AP, and AFP