The EU should build a coherent, consistent and positive message for the Western Balkans regarding their future membership of the Union.

The Western Balkans were promised EU membership in the Thessaloniki summit in 2003. But since then, many aspects of the enlargement process have stalled. Despite having overcome its 30-year dispute with Greece, North Macedonia now faces a veto from Bulgaria, sending the message that even huge reforms with an impact on the country’s society and culture are not enough to guarantee serious accession talks.

These countries are geographically, historically and culturally undeniably part of Europe. They are surrounded by EU member states, with which they enjoy extensive economic and social ties. Their accession as full member states should be a matter of priority. But in the face of mixed signals from the EU, enthusiasm for EU membership in these countries is fading. This is providing autocratic leaders with the opportunity to roll back democratic reforms, while other powers like Russia and China expand their influence in the region. To combat this, the EU urgently needs to find a more appealing message and reassure citizens and political leaders in the Balkans that their future lies in the EU.

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