BRDO CASTLE, Slovenia — European Union leaders tried to reassure six Balkan countries they could eventually join the trading bloc if they meet its standards, but the leaders failed to provide a credible signal Wednesday that the EU's enlargement process will be relaunched in the near future.
Despite years of talk about the "European perspective" of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, the EU's progress on admitting them has stalled. Albania and North Macedonia have met the criteria to start talks, but all 27 countries must agree unanimously for the process to move forward.
A meeting at Brdo Castle, a Renaissance-style fortified palace in Slovenia, gave EU leaders the opportunity to reaffirm their "unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans." But they stressed in their conclusions that any advances would be "based upon credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits."
They also underlined the need for the EU to "maintain and deepen its own development, ensuring its capacity to integrate new members." France insisted two years ago that the functioning and decision-making of the EU should be revamped before new members are admitted.
North Macedonia's prime minister, Zoran Zaev, said that if EU promises don't turn into reality, "people in the Western Balkans will feel big disappointment that will create huge damage to the European idea of unity and cooperation."
The six nations in the Balkans region are at different stages on the EU membership path. Montenegro and Serbia are the most advanced, having opened formal accession talks years ago. Albania and North Macedonia are awaiting the official opening of negotiations, and Kosovo and Bosnia are potential candidates.
The latest hold-up focuses on Albania and North Macedonia. Those countries have fulfilled the criteria for beginning entry talks, but EU member Bulgaria opposes North Macedonia's inclusion because of a dispute over language and national identity.
EU membership is based on a candidate's progress in areas such as respect for the rule of law and democratic standards in areas such as media freedom and judicial independence, and the implementation of specific socio-economic reforms.
"I know that still work has to be done," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the EU's executive arm, said that while more work is needed, she acknowledged the effort the prospective member nations had made so far. She reiterated that she thinks the sextet belong in the EU.
"We want them in the European Union. We are one European family," von der Leyen said. "We share the same history, we share the same values, and I'm deeply convinced we share the same destiny, too."
Slovenia, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, backs its Balkans neighbors' EU membership hopes. Croatia was the last country admitted into the EU, in 2013.
The prospect of EU membership has served as a powerful driver of political and economic reform in the Balkans and has sometimes helped to keep a lid on tensions in a region that was torn apart by war in the 1990s.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Serbian media that Slovenia proposed before the meeting that all Western Balkan nations should become members by 2030 but several existing member countries opposed the idea.
"We don't have any illusions about a quick entry into the EU," Vucic said, adding that the matter was becoming "a political question."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "there is an immense geostrategic interest in making these countries members of the European Union."
However, she stressed that the six countries need to fulfil the conditions to become EU members. Asked about the proposal by the Slovenian EU presidency to give the Balkan countries a firm timeline for when they would join, Merkel said she didn't support it.
"I think it's important that we keep our word — when the conditions are fulfilled, accession can take place," she said. But "so far, no accession could take place because the conditions haven't yet been fulfilled by any of the countries."
"I don't think much of such a deadline that ultimately puts us under pressure regardless of whether the conditions are fulfilled or not," Merkel added.
Despite the lack of progress, von der Leyen praised the bloc's effort to invest 30 billion euros ($34.7 billion) in the Balkans over the next seven years to support the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.
"It is very important to make clear to the Western Balkans countries how much we care about them and that we are their favorite partner," von der Leyen said.