As the European Union looks inward, countries promised accession to the bloc find themselves left in the cold.

As the President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tours the Balkans, telling leaders that their path towards the bloc is assured provided they fulfil the criteria, behind the scenes in Brussels, something altogether is brewing.

As she landed in Albania, von der Leyen's messages to the country's Prime Minister was clear: "Albania's future is in the EU." 

In North Macedonia, she added even more strongly: "I support the formal opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia & Albania, as soon as possible."

Yet, European leaders, fearing a backlash in member states about further expansion of the EU, no longer feel comfortable giving the guarantees being bandied around on von der Leyen's Balkan tour.

In 2003 the EU pledged in Thessaloniki, Greece, that Balkan countries, including Albanian, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia, would join the bloc.

Since then, only Croatia has joined the bloc, while the other Balkan countries have stagnated in their attempts to join as appetite amongst EU countries has dried up for further expansion.

For different domestic reasons, northern European countries such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands have consistently blocked or placed hurdles in the way of Balkan countries moving up the accession ladder towards the EU.

More recently, Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia's process because of a language dispute between the two sides.

Another factor that has played a role in the slowing accession process is the regions large Muslim population.

Countries like Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia are Europe's three Muslim majority countries, whereas North Macedonia also has a sizeable Muslim minority.

A recent editorial in The Economist warned that most European countries would regard the idea of a Muslim majority country joining the bloc with "horror".

The country in question in the piece was Turkey. However, such notions make it clear that member countries fear the idea of more Muslims being part of the union.

More recently, the EU is now also considering suspending visa-free travel to countries seeking to join after allegations that the system is being abused and people are overstaying their time.

Meanwhile, France enters into an election year and the country's President Emmanual Macron faces a strong challenge from the country's far-right.

A poll done earlier this year found that most French citizens don't see the prospect of Balkan countries joining the EU positively.

With 59 percent of French voters seeing it negatively, Macron is unlikely to relent on Balkans accession.

Analysts have warned that the EU needs to be more honest with Balkan countries who have been told for the last 30 years that they will one day join the EU.

Hopes for entering the EU have also frozen several interlocking issues, including Serbia's non-recognition of Kosovo who declared independence in 2008 and the continuing governance stalemate in Bosnia.

"There is deterioration in the Balkans that stems from the lost interest in EU capitals," said one diplomat recently. Recent tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have shown how easily things could get out of hand in the region.

Source: TRT World