BRUSSELS — As European Union leaders gather for a summit on how to keep engaging with their Western Balkans neighbors, the bloc's once-successful enlargement policy faces an impasse.
The European Commission made repeated promises that the future of six countries in the region lies within the 27-nation bloc. But progress has stalled on admitting Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia amid divisions among member countries and some bilateral issues.
Nationalist populism has risen in Hungary and Poland, undermining unity. The entry of well over 1 million migrants in 2015 has exposed stark differences about how to manage them, sparking a major political crisis that has yet to be resolved.
EU expansion has also been routinely sidelined by crises like the Greek financial meltdown and Britain's drawn-out exit, leaving the bloc very focused on its own survival rather than taking in new members. The planned departure of longtime German chancellor Angela Merkel and next year's presidential election in France have deprived the EU of clear leadership, adding to the decision-making burden.
Although EU member countries are expected to reaffirm their commitment to the enlargement process during Wednesday's meeting, they will stop short of providing a clear deadline, according to a draft document seen by The Associated Press.
The deadlock is causing frustration among the candidates amid a flare-up of tensions at the border between Kosovo and Serbia, raising questions about the bloc's commitment.
"The dignity of the people has to be preserved, you know. We cannot beg, we cannot stand in the lobby of the European Union when culturally and geographically we are Europe," said Predrag Tasic, a retired judge in North Macedonia. "Europe without Balkans, without this region, is not Europe."
The six 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.
After EU leaders did not agree to go further in their negotiations with Serbia in June, the latest wrinkle 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.
Since the Albanian and North Macedonian bids are linked and launching accession talks requires unanimous approval from all EU nations, the veto has also prevented Albania from moving forward.
"That actually is holding us hostage at a time where we have fulfilled all our tasks and wait to sit around the table with the European Union to kick off negotiations," said Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Albania and North Macedonia were expecting to receive a green light to begin negotiations on joining Europe's rich club two years ago, but their hopes were ruined at the time because of opposition from France and The Netherlands.
The EU has always said that membership is based on a candidate's progress in areas such as respect for the rule of law and democratic standards, or the implementation of socio-economic reforms. But in the case of Albania and North Macedonia, the merits acknowledged by the commission are not rewarded.
"Blocking this process is not in the spirit of this commitment," said North Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. "We took all necessary steps and we made all required reforms. We'll take the additional acceptable steps to unlock EU's enlargement and we expect that Bulgaria will unlock this process."
But the government in Sofia, which wants North Macedonia to formally recognize that its language has Bulgarian roots, has not given any sign that it is ready to lift its veto. And other EU countries have not shown a strong appetite for speeding up the process.
Among the EU's major players, only Merkel has been using her influence in support of Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU council and has made enlargement a priority of its tenure.
The Albania and North Macedonia bids currently seem to be more popular outside the bloc, as senior U.S. officials have warned that Western adversaries like China and Russia would continue to gain influence in the region if the dispute remains unresolved.
In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar, who oversees the Western Balkans, urged the EU to begin talks this year with the two countries.
Serbia, the largest of the Western Balkan nations, has been forging close ties with China and Slavic ally Russia despite warnings from the West about the two powers' influence in the region. Some in the West fear that Russia, which has been arming Serbia, could encourage authoritarian Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic to destabilize the still-volatile region.
Public interest in the membership has gradually been dropping in Serbia, and its leaders have very often sent mixed signals about their true EU commitment.
"All these years and even decades we have been listening about the membership promises from the EU," said Serbian parliament speaker Ivica Dacic. "The question is which generation will see those promises being fulfilled. Why don't they simply tell us, 'we no longer want EU expansion,' and we will accept it as a reality?"
The prospect of membership has been a powerful driving force for reforms in the Balkans since the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into war in the early 1990s. Croatia and Slovenia have joined, but the EU has not expanded since 2013.
The migration crisis is often cited by experts as one of the major reasons for the paralysis. There are fears that enlargement would create another influx of those seeking a better life.
Lingering tensions between Serbia and Kosovo also don't help. Five EU members — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain — do not recognize Kosovo as a country.
"It is vital that Kosovo and Serbia normalize their relations," said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. "The EU-facilitated dialogue is the only platform to resolve the current crisis."
While the EU is not in a position to offer a clear perspective to the Balkans candidates, it can at least offer financial support.
The bloc said it will provide some 30 billion euros (about $34.8 billion) to the region over the next seven years in a bid boost the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerate improvements in the environmental and digital fields.