TIRANA, Albania (AP) — For the six Western Balkans countries aspiring to join the European Union, gaining full membership in the 27-nation club remains a distant goal.
But Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are getting more concrete signs that they have a future place in the EU as Russia’s war in Ukraine threatens to reshape the geopolitical balance in southeastern Europe.
EU and Western Balkans leaders worked to strengthen their partnership at a summit Tuesday in Albania's capital, Tirana, where they covered topics that included migration, cybersecurity and diplomatic ties.
The EU “reconfirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of accession talks with the membership hopefuls.
As proof of the bloc's commitment, European Council President Charles Michel underscored the EU's energy support to the region as the war impacts supplies and prices.
“I am absolutely convinced that the future of our children will be safe and more prosperous with the Western Balkans within the EU," said Michel, who jointly chaired the summit with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.
Rama thanked Michel and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for their support and perceived determination to ensure membership talks with the Western Balkans did not “die in agony."
The EU last admitted a new member — Croatia, which is also part of the Balkans — in 2013. The path toward membership is a lengthy process, as countries must meet a detailed host of economic and political conditions,
Since Russia attacked Ukraine in late February, EU officials have repeated that stepping up the bloc's engagement with the six nations was more crucial than ever to maintaining Europe's security.
“The war is sending shock waves. It affects everybody, and especially this region," the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said.
In return for progress on the accession talks, the EU expects full solidarity from its Western Balkans partners and wants them fully aligned with the bloc's foreign policies.
That particular point has posed obstacles for Serbia, whose President Aleksandar Vucic, claims he wants to take Serbia into the European Union but has cultivated ties with Russia.
Although Serbia’s representatives voted in favor of various U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Vucic has refused to explicitly condemn Moscow. His country has not joined Western sanctions against Russia over the war.
“This is a two-way street," Borrell said. “And we also expect the region to deliver on key reforms, and certainly to show the will to embrace the European Union's ambition and spirit. Many do, but we see also hesitations."
Von der Leyen also warned of China's growing influence in the Western Balkans.
“We notice very clearly that the Ukraine war is not only Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine, but also a question of whether autocracies and the law of the strongest will prevail. Or whether democracy and the rule of law will prevail," Von der Leyen said. “And this struggle is also noticeable in the Western Balkans. Russia is trying to exert influence, China is trying to exert influence."
The EU remains the Western Balkans' main trade partner, accounting for over two-thirds of the region’s total trade, according to the bloc's data.
“We are the closest partner and that is why the discussion is also about you having to decide which side you are on," the von der Leyen said.
Although their progress toward EU membership had stalled in recent years, most of the nations recently took steps on the path toward admission.
This summer, the EU started membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia following years of delays. Bosnia moved a small bit closer when the European Commission advised member countries in October to grant it candidate status despite continuing criticism of the way the nation is run.
Kosovo has only started the first step and said it would apply for candidate status later this month.
“We need the EU to move from words to deeds,” President Vjosa Osmani of Kosovo said.
To help households and businesses weather the war in Ukraine's effects on energy and food security, the EU has earmarked 1 billion euros in grants to the Western Balkans, hoping the money will encourage double the investment.
Michel highlighted an agreement that will lower cellphone roaming charges between the Western Balkans and EU nations starting in October 2023, with the view of erasing it completely at a later stage
Leaders also discussed immigration, which remains a big EU concern in light of the number of migrants trying to enter the bloc without authorization via the Western Balkans, notably through Serbia.
EU border agency Frontex said it detected more than 22,300 attempted entries from the Balkans migration route in October, nearly three times as many as a year ago. Around 500 Frontex officers are working along the EU’s borders with Balkan nations, and the agency plans to assign staff members soon inside the region itself.
Serbia so far has not aligned its visa policies with the bloc's and allows visitors from several countries to enter without visas. Some from Burundi, Tunisia, India, Cuba and Turkey slip into the EU that way.
Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.