European Union leaders expressed determination to “strengthen and intensify” their ties to the Western Balkans, but they dampened any hopes of a quick move to allow any new countries into the bloc.
"The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans," it said in a joint declaration on May 17 after a summit in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.
The declaration said the EU was "determined to strengthen and intensify its engagement at all levels" and vowed to "substantially" enhance "connectivity in all its dimensions: transport, energy, digital, economic, and human."
But French President Emmanuel Macron in comments to reporters stressed that much work was needed before the six Western Balkans countries that remain outside the bloc -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo -- would be ready for membership.
He said the EU "supported dialogue, a perspective,” but added that he is “not in favor of moving toward enlargement before we have all the required certainties and before genuine reform has been made."
The gathering marked the first EU-Western Balkans summit in 15 years and was seen by many as an effort to counter the growing political, military, and economic influence of countries such as Russia, Turkey, and China in the region.
The European Commission recently announced a strategy for the region that has a goal of offering membership to some states by 2025.
Some countries, particularly those near the region, such as Bulgaria and Croatia, favor enlargement to counter outside influences, while opponents often cite political instability, cross-border disputes, and endemic corruption among some countries as reasons to hold off.
Ahead of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk said the region's integration into Europe must remain "a firm commitment on both sides."
"I am convinced that the EU is the only partner that cares genuinely about the stability of the entire region and a prosperous future for its peoples -- as opposed to treating it as a geopolitical game of chess, in which the people are pawns," he wrote in a letter to regional leaders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the summit it was “in the interest of peace and security for all of us that we have a secure Western Balkans region that is developing well economically."
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said it was important to keep communications open with countries of the region.
"The summit may be a symbolic act, but it can again trigger a little more dynamism," he said. "If there is no European perspective in the Balkans, then the Turkish influence and other influence becomes stronger and stronger. We don't want that to happen."
One regional dispute has stymied members for decades: the dispute between Macedonia and EU member Greece over Macedonia’s name.
Greece has for years blocked Macedonia's efforts to join the EU and NATO, arguing that its name implies a claim on the Greek province of Macedonia.
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on May 17 that an agreement between the two countries could be finalized before an EU summit in June.
However, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said after the summit that the two countries were "not in a position yet" to announce a deal.
"I believe we have covered a major part of the distance, but there is still distance to cover," Tsipras told a press conference.
Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy stayed away from the summit in protest of his country's opposition to Kosovo's independence from Serbia, which has not been recognized by Belgrade.
The EU has told Serbia and Kosovo that it must settle their differences before either can be admitted to the bloc.