The European Union faces a crisis of credibility in the Western Balkans after repeated promises of joining the bloc without any real progress are fanning tensions in the region.
Leaders are set to meet in Slovenia on Wednesday for the EU-Western Balkans summit to discuss EU membership for the six regional nations to join the bloc, and the political mood ahead of it is somewhat gloomy.
Brussels is set to recommit to enlargement, but, so far, with no clear deadlines.
According to Croatia’s former Foreign Affairs Minister, Vesna Pusic, recent flareups between Kosovo and Serbia have their roots in EU neglect.
“I’ve lived here my entire life here and the region has been in this state – unstable and fragile since the wars of the nineteen nineties,” Pusic told Euronews. “Both segments of the political elites and societies have, to some extent, given up hope of ever being able to join the union.”
The six Western Balkan countries are at different stages, with Montenegro and Serbia having formally opened accession talks.
Albania and North Macedonia are currently waiting for formal talks to begin, while Kosovo and Bosnia are candidates.
Membership is dependent on improvements in democratic standards and socio-economic reforms, but despite making progress on these issues, the door to the EU seemingly remains closed.
“The greatest risk in the region is really a very steady and constant backsliding on the rule of law and the freedom of media,” Majda Ruge from the European Council on Foreign Relations told Euronews. “You basically have issues of political meddling of key states in neighbouring states, specifically Serbia and Croatia.”
The holdup in membership progress varies between each country. Bulgaria, for example, has vetoed North Macedonia talks over a language dispute.
Other EU countries remain generally cautious of new members, fearing a fresh wave of migration to Western member states.
In France, this is a particular concern for President Macron as he seeks election next year.
“The French elections play a very important role, of course, and one can understand that President Macron doesn’t want anything that in any way will be a detrimental influence on his campaign and his chances to win another term,” Pusic said.
As membership talks stall, other nations such as China and Russia have been quick to provide investments and exert influence on countries in the region.
The EU has so far offered more finance to the Western Balkans, but divisions between members mean that enlargement seems off the menu for now.