European Union leaders and their counterparts from the six Western Balkan countries commenced talks in Sofia, Bulgaria on Thursday to discuss how to strengthen ties between the region and the bloc.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L), British Prime Minister Theresa May (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak following a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on May 17, 2018. European Union leaders will meet their Balkan counterparts to hold out the promise of closer links to counter Russian influence, while steering clear of openly offering them membership.
French President Emmanuel Macron (L), British Prime Minister Theresa May (C) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel speak following a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of an EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on May 17, 2018. European Union leaders will meet their Balkan counterparts to hold out the promise of closer links to counter Russian influence, while steering clear of openly offering them membership. ( AFP )

European Union leaders anxious to counter Russian influence sought on Thursday to reassure Balkan states of their long-promised membership prospects but warned they would not be joining any time soon.

EU leaders are meeting their counterparts from six Balkan countries in Sofia, a day after a dinner that sought to forge a united front in the face of US President Donald Trump's "capricious assertiveness" on the Iran nuclear deal and trade tariffs.

The bloc faces a dilemma over Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo – wanting to offer them enough to keep them out of Moscow's orbit without rushing to let them join before they carry out important reforms.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted the countries, collectively referred to as the Western Balkans, to have a "supported dialogue, a perspective," but warned against hasty moves.

"I am not in favour of moving towards enlargement before we have all the required certainties and before genuine reform has been made," Macron told reporters as he arrived for the summit.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said the bloc would invest in infrastructure connections with the Balkans to boost development and bring them up to EU standards.

The EU is increasingly looking to take its fate into its own hands as a transatlantic rift grows with Trump, who withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal and wants to slap tariffs on European steel and aluminium.

Tusk launched a stinging attack on Trump while adding that he was helping Europe in a way because it had "got rid of all illusions" that it can rely on Washington.

"Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, someone could even think with friends like that who needs enemies," Tusk told reporters in Sofia on Wednesday.

Macedonia, Greece to meet

After suspending any enlargement four years ago, the European Commission recently unveiled a new strategy for the region which aims to give membership to some states by 2025 – the frontrunners to join are Montenegro and Serbia.

In return, Brussels wants reforms and a crackdown on corruption in the region.

But the six countries are growing increasingly impatient for a path to membership. Bulgaria's prime minister recently warned Russia and China will otherwise gain toeholds in the region.

In the summit declaration, a draft of which was obtained by AFP, the Europeans outlined the theme of "connectivity" with investments in transport and infrastructure.

But the declaration avoids using the words "adhesion" or "enlargement" – EU code words for the path to membership of the bloc.

"This is not a subject for Sofia," a senior EU official insisted, adding that membership issues would be discussed in June when leaders decide whether to approve accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia.

Without a "European perspective," the Balkans risk falling back into the "misfortunes we saw in the 90s" when Yugoslavia was tearing itself apart, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker warned last week.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country will take over the EU's rotating presidency in July, stressed the importance of keeping the door open.

"The summit may be a symbolic act, but it can again trigger a little more dynamism," he said.

"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."

The EU is also wary of admitting new members before they settle their differences, particularly in a region still bedevilled by the aftermath of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

These include a bitter and long-running dispute between Macedonia and EU-member Greece over its name, which Athens insists refers to its own northern province.

The leaders of Macedonia and Greece met on the sidelines of the summit although officials played down the chance of any deal.

Spain's prime minister is staying away because his country, roiled by the Catalan independence drive, does not recognise Kosovo's 2008 split from Serbia.

Source: AFP