The European Union has indicated that it hopes to add some of the continent’s poorest countries to its bloc in order to check the influence of Russia, China and Turkey in the Balkans.
The EU’s executive branch on Tuesday set a target date of 2025 for some of the Balkan countries to join. Membership would allow citizens of the ex-communist states to travel, trade and work freely across Europe’s wealthiest nations.
Brussels currently sees Serbia and Montenegro as best placed but the door is now also open to Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. This spring, EU leaders are expected to back this aspiration and pledge regular summits with their Balkan neighbors.
The new strategy reverses the EU’s approach of recent years, when it turned inward after a decade of crises with the euro, migrants and geopolitics.
The EU is grappling with Britain’s planned exit from the bloc, and the prospect of further enlargement could fuel nationalist movements that want to curb or unravel the bloc.
Within the Balkans, the EU’s crises have diminished membership’s allure.
“I am afraid we will join the EU once everyone else decides to leave it,” said Nerma Hadzic, a 25-year-old Bosnian in Sarajevo. “Looking at our neighbors who joined, I don’t have an impression that they are living much better than us.”
European policy makers worry that their inward focus has created a power vacuum in their backyard, the western Balkans, the mountainous region where some 140,000 people died during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Some EU officials see bringing together the region’s biggest powers—rivals Serbia and Croatia—inside the bloc as completing the EU’s mission to spread peace across the continent. Croatia joined the EU in 2013.
“The Western Balkans share the same history as the members of the European Union, the same cultural heritage, the same challenges,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said Tuesday. “I would say it is clear today…we will share a common future inside our European Union.”
In Bosnia, Saudi investors are building mosques and luxury resorts, reducing the leverage Western donors have over the fractured country’s leaders. The Turkish government is repairing Ottoman Empire-era bridges and mosques there.
China’s Export-Import Bank is funding a $300 million rail line across Serbia. The bank also signed a $1 billion deal to pave a highway through Montenegro.
Russia’s intelligence agency is accused by Western officials of backing Bosnian separatists and anti-EU nationalists who tried but failed in late 2016 to kill Montenegro’s prime minister. Moscow denies both charges.
“Brussels sees that Russia is meddling, that Turkey is present and China is spending,” said Senada Selo Sabic, a research associate at the Department for International Economic and Political Relations, a think tank in Zagreb, Croatia. “We need to do something.”
Adding the six Balkan states and their 18 million people represents a monumental undertaking for the EU. The region is still seen as rife with poverty, corruption and organized crime, and each country faces hurdles.
Serbia in the 1990s fought a long war with Croatia. Serbia—like five EU countries—refuses to recognize the breakaway state of Kosovo. Bosnia is split between rival governments on frosty terms, one administering the mostly Muslim southwest and another managing the northeast, dominated by Orthodox Christian Serbs. Macedonia’s bid to enter the EU has been blocked for years by Greece, an EU member, due to a dispute over its name.
Still, nearly all of the countries won EU favor in 2015 by helping defuse its refugee crisis. Macedonia built a fence to block the human tide. Serbia hosted refugees blocked by a fence Hungary built on its southern border.
“The Western Balkans are part of Europe,” said Ekaterina Zakharieva, deputy prime minister of Bulgaria, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. “If we are not present, somebody else will be there.”
Some Balkan countries have begun integrating into the EU. Enlargement talks have started with Serbia and advanced with Montenegro. The EU has nudged Serbia and Kosovo to improve ties and officials say they hope membership talks can start with Albania and Macedonia by June.
The EU’s economic leverage in the region remains significant. It provides around three quarters of foreign direct investment and total trade with the region, dwarfing economic ties with Russia and China. It is also by far the biggest donor, providing roughly €1 billion in assistance annually, a figure that officials said Tuesday should increase from 2018.
EU political support for Balkan membership also appears to be growing. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has spearheaded closer ties. Even governments frequently at odds with Brussels, including Hungary and Britain, support expansion plans.
EU officials hope the 2025 date will encourage Balkan governments to push deep economic, financial and anticorruption reforms needed to join the bloc. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday precluded shortcuts on completing accession criteria and said resolving outstanding border disputes is a precondition for accession.
Bringing the remaining countries around the former Yugoslavia into the EU would complete what some consider the bloc’s final expansion, but it could be a long and difficult path.