Brussels is ready to "mobilise lots of money" to invest in the Western Balkans, as EU leaders gathered in Slovenia on Wednesday to the reassure six countries that the path to membership of the bloc is still open.
After weeks of deliberation, EU leaders agreed that Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania have a place in the world's largest trading bloc if they fulfil the criteria on areas from judicial reform to economics. But they did resist calls to set a 2030 goal for accession.
There is growing concern that the lengthy wait for the six states could lead to them falling into the arms of China and Russia.
European Council President Charles Michel said the summit would "be the opportunity to make clear that we are ready mobilize a lot of money in order to invest in the country but also in order to support reforms - economic reforms but also the fight against corruption, reforms in order to improve the governance".
But speak afterwards, Mr Michel conceded that it would not be an easy path. "In all frankness, there is discussion among the 27 (EU member states) about our capacity to take in new members."
Albania and North Macedonia have met the criteria to start talks, but all 27 countries must agree unanimously for the process to move forward.
Brussels is keen to show that it is the region's best hope and has talked up economic support worth as much as €30 billion ($34.61bn).
Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins said further reforms were needed by the six Balkan states, but cautioned, “either Europe extends the hand, and pulls these countries towards us or someone else will extend the hand and pull the countries in a different direction".
“In Latvia, the process of joining the European Union was the game changer in terms of enabling reform and, of course in the Western Balkans, they still have some ways to go,” he said.
Moscow and Beijing have sent millions of Covid-19 vaccines to the region.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen insisted that the EU saw a future of close partnership with the six countries, despite its stalling progress on admitting them.
“We want to send a very clear message and that message is that Western Balkans belong to the European Union, we want them in the European Union,” she said.
“We are one European family … and I'm deeply convinced we share the same destiny.”
The EU's drive for enlargement – at one point a key policy for the bloc – has ground to a halt in recent years. Some richer members fear sparking a new wave of migration. Some applicants are struggling with the required reforms, especially on democratic norms.
“I have no illusions about a quick accession to the EU,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose country applied for EU membership in 2009.
“The political needs of the EU are such that Balkan enlargement is neither a dominant nor a popular issue.”
The bloc has also failed to make good on promises that are tangible to citizens, such as visa-free travel for Kosovo.
"It has been a great injustice, a lack of fairness towards citizens of our country," Kosovo's prime minister Albin Kurti said on arrival. He pointed out that that five EU states still did not recognise Kosovo's independence. That is largely out of fear of emboldening separatist movements at home, such as in Spain's Catalonia.
"I advocate for a lack of fear on the EU's side, and a lack of bitterness on the side of the Balkans," he added. "I am still hopeful".