EU leaders were never going to convince the Western Balkans six that there remains a real "European perspective" for them – code for accession prospects – simply by turning up to this week's Western Balkans summit in Brdo in Slovenia.
On the contrary, the decision not yet to open formal accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, due to start in 2019, suggests that, promises in the summit conclusions notwithstanding, EU member states have no real appetite for further enlargement. Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, a strong supporter, repeated that the six – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia – were destined to be part of the EU but conceded that there was growing "frustration" among them.
Support for enlargement among EU voters has largely collapsed across the continent since the admission of Croatia in 2013, and European Council president Charles Michel admitted at the end of the summit that the EU, which can only move forward by unanimity, is divided over whether it has the "capacity" to take on further members.
France's Emmanuel Macron wants to block any enlargement until the rules for accession are fundamentally revised. Bulgaria has been blackballing talks with North Macedonia due to a dispute over history and language, demanding that the latter explicitly acknowledge its roots in Bulgarian culture. Five or six states want to stall the whole process. And five EU members still do not recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state.
With Russia and China determined to expand their regional influence, the summit has again exposed the credibility of EU soft power projection. To complement the carrot of cash aid – the summit backed a €30 billion economic investment package for the region – the union has sought to use the promise of accession to encourage reform and a western political orientation. But such promises are easily made and just as easily longfingered, as Turkey and Ukraine have been only too willing to point out.