European Union leaders anxious to counter Russian influence sought Thursday to reassure Balkan states about their long-promised membership prospects, but warned they would not be joining any time soon.
EU leaders met their counterparts from six Balkan countries for summit talks 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.
In the final summit declaration, the EU outlined the theme of "connectivity" with investments in transport and infrastructure to help bring them up to European standards.
The statement avoided the terms "adhesion" or "enlargement" -- EU code words for the path to membership of the bloc -- restating instead the "unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans".
- 'No plan B' -
But EU Council President Donald Tusk stressed "the connectivity agenda is neither an alternative nor a substitute for enlargement".
"It is a way to use the time between today and tomorrow more effectively than before, so that our citizens and businesses are not waiting for all the benefits of EU integration," he said.
"Because I don’t see any other future for the Western Balkans than the EU. There is no other alternative, there is no plan B."
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.
A European diplomatic source said that during the talks, objections to Balkan enlargement had come on two grounds: the need for the would-be members to reform and also the fractious state of the EU itself.
"Some pointed out that the EU is not working properly with 28 members and so future enlargement should only come after internal reform," the source said.
Membership issues are to 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.
- Dispute resolution -
"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.
After talks with his Greek counterpart on the sidelines of the summit, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said the two sides had agreed on a solution that was "acceptable for both sides".
But Greek PM Alexis Tsipras sounded a cautious note, saying they were "not yet in a position" to announce a deal and there was work still to be done.