Rapprochement between the EU and the Balkans has been slow to meet hopes expressed at a summit in 2003, when Brussels leaders declared the future of the region was within the bloc.
Since then, only Slovenia and Croatia have joined the EU, and the process has stalled for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.
Currently, the EU has also frozen enlargement activities through to 2019 as faces multiple challenges posed by economic crisis, refugees, Brexit and relation with the United States under Donald Trump.
But participants in the summit say the event itself, which was to feature speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is proof enough of the EU’s continued commitment to the region.
“Having all the high level politicians from the Western Balkans and EU member states emphasising the importance of regional cooperation and the accession process definitely shows that the Balkans are important to the EU,” says Marika Djolai of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, adding that building relations had a long way to go.
“The summit is great and the political support is great, but quite often when it comes to the more practical and technical level, there is definitely lack of progress, and I think that is the overall and genuine perception of the people.”
When it comes to association with the EU, the bloc demands democratic reforms, and the Balkans offer a mixed bag.
“In Macedonia, despite various serious attempts to prevent it, an elected government was formed and took power, and you’re seeing a slow return to functioning democratic institutions,” says Eric Gordy, a specialist in the region at University College London.
“Similarly in Kosovo, you’ve seen public outrage at corruption resulting in a surprising election result. But in other places in the region, what you really see is a consolidation of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian single-party or cartel rule that bodes very badly for the future.”
When it comes to the EU’s interest in the Balkans, Brussels has also to appear serious about standards of rule of law, freedom of the press, independence of the judiciary and protecting minority rights.
“There’s a serious problem among European politicians that there isn’t a consistent position taken,” Gordy says.
“For example during the recent elections in Macedonia, you have a surprising incident where the foreign minister of Austria appeared at a campaign event of a party trying to establish single-party rule and that tried to overturn the results of the elections once they were held.”
Wednesday’s summit was to discuss building a regional economic area, promoting youth exchange programs and financing infrastructure in transport and energy sectors, including a highway linking Serbia, Kosovo and Albania.
But public support and enthusiasm for the EU has somewhat waned in the region, with previous infrastructure initiatives failing to translate into a boost in approval.
“Support was declining in the past decade in all the countries of the region except Albania,” says Marika Djolai.
“Citizens of the Balkans are probably sceptical about joining the EU, but on the other hand, perhaps the governments sometimes decide to not so clearly communicate the EU support to the public, so even though investments like infrastructure or energy improve people’s everyday lives, it may not always be clear that the support comes from the EU.”