BRUSSELS More Balkan states can still join the European Union if they stick to a path of economic and democratic reform, Europe's leaders said on Thursday at a summit meant to cement the bloc's long-term commitment to stabilise a region mired in political crisis.
EU leaders placed the Balkans high on the agenda of their summit in Brussels to show that despite ethnic tensions and the scars from wars fought in the 1990s, the region is a priority for the European Union, particularly as Russia also seeks to increase its influence there.
"The Western Balkan countries have an unequivocal European perspective," said Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission which is leading membership negotiations with Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia.
"We are not stepping away, but stepping in," he said.
Two years ago, Juncker said no new countries would join the EU during his mandate at the Commission, which runs until 2019.
Officials said that was a technicality because the Balkans were not ready to join. But some in the region say the message damaged the EU's credibility.
Britain will hold a special summit on the Western Balkans in 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May said, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel also stressed the importance of the region.
Thursday's meeting did not prescribe new EU policies for the Balkans, but diplomats said European leaders would try to visit more often to encourage reform.
"For the countries in the Balkans, that matters," said a senior EU official. "There's a sense that their European path has slipped away. But their only path is towards the EU."
Russia, which is trying to exploit its historic links in the region to challenge EU and U.S. involvement, opposes the accession of Balkan states into the EU.
It refuses to recognise the independence of Kosovo and opposes Montenegro's membership of the U.S.-led NATO alliance.
The Balkan countries are at various stages of reforms aimed at paving the way for EU membership, with Serbia seen as a linchpin whose development could pull up others.
But despite some progress over the past five years, reforms across the region to the judiciary and the business climate have stalled, allowing organised crime to flourish and encouraging more migrants to head north to the EU.
Britain's May warned of "the potential for increased instability and the risks ... to our collective security."
Macedonia is mired in a political crisis, while Serbia does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, its former province, and accuses it of seeking a war with Belgrade.
In Montenegro, both pro-Western and opposition parties are boycotting the parliament following a recent vote in which they say people were intimidated to back the government.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)