EU leaders have met in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia for the first EU-Western Balkans summit in 15 years.
Assuring the states of the former Yugoslavia that a path to membership was still open, the EU leaders said the pro-Western alignment was a priority.
"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,” said Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council.
The gathering came at a time when the bloc is deeply divided over its future, as the UK is poised to depart next year. On the agenda were trade, technology and security cooperation, but for many, the question mark over the EU’s future was impossible to avoid.
“The EU is determined to strengthen and intensify its engagement [with the Western Balkans],” said a communique issued after the summit.
In public some European leaders played down the chances of a quick accession for the six Balkan states not in the EU while others warned of the dangers of losing the region.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “not in favour of moving toward enlargement before we have all the required certainties and before genuine reform has been made" even as he added that the Balkan states should be anchored in the bloc.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned other countries would fill the void if the EU held back. "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."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also played down Balkan membership of the EU. “I do not think 2025 is a realistic date for the EU enlargement. More important is the progress that has been achieved by the candidates,” she told reporters.
The summit was also marred by long-standing frictions both within and between the Balkan states and the larger bloc.
A dispute between Greece and Macedonia over the Greek province of Macedonia -- whether the country’s name implies a claim to the Greek province -- has been enough to see Greece block Macedonia's membership of the EU in recent years. Officials from the two countries have been locked in talks over the issue.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told reporters that the differences had not been resolved. "I believe we have covered a major part of the distance, but there is still distance to cover," he said.
Meanwhile, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, was notably absent after he announced he wouldn’t share a table with Kosovan representatives. Madrid is one of the few countries that doesn’t recognise Kosovan independence from Serbia – declared in 2008, amid fears it could set a precedent regarding the Catalan region of Spain.