Leaders from the European Union and Western Balkan countries will gather in Albania on Tuesday to discuss how to boost ties between them and accelerate the accession process into the bloc as Russia's war in Ukraine continues to loom large over the region.
Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia all put in bids to join the bloc years ago but each had their process stalled for years due in part to a lack of appetite for further enlargement among EU capitals.
But Russia's war on Ukraine has increased support for integrating these countries, leading to the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia over the summer.
Tuesday's gathering in Tirana will be the first time such a summit is taking place in a Western Balkan country, which according to an EU official, "is a symbol of the strength of the relationship".
'Moment of truth'
The EU is to use the summit to "unequivocally reconfirm its commitment to the accession process," another official said, emphasising that Western Balkan countries still need to make "credible reforms" as well as "swift and sustained progress for full alignment" with the bloc's foreign and security policy, including on sanctions, and visa policy.
All these countries, except Serbia, have slapped sanctions on Russia. Belgrade is also currently an important port of entry into the EU for foreign nationals whose governments have visa-free arrangments with the small nation.
"We share the opinion that the harmonisation of visa regimes in the Western Balkan is key," Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob told journalists on Monday. "Certain progress has been made but we need to insist on this harmonisation."
Kosovo, whose bid to join the EU is hindered by the fact it is not recognised as a sovereign country by several EU states and by Serbia, will be making a last push to be granted visa liberalisation with the EU.
Bosnia and Herzegovina meanwhile will be looking for signs its candidate status is coming.
The European Commission came out in favour of granting candidate status to the country of 3.2 million inhabitants in October.
EU countries could announce their decision during a General Affairs Council on December 13 or at the European Council two days later.
"I’m not able to predict what will be the decision but I can tell you that a few months ago just before the summer, we had an in-depth exchange of views at the European Council level on the question of the status for Bosnia and Herzegovina," European Council President Charles Michel told reporters on Monday.
"The 13 December will be a certain moment of truth because all the member states will have to say what they think about that question," he added during his joint appearance with Golob in Ljubljana.
Energy and security
But conscious of the fact that accession is a long and arduous process, the EU is also keen to strengthen ties by bringing Western Balkan countries into some of its programmes.
Leaders in Tirana will therefore also look at other areas of cooperation including health, education, energy, and security.
The EU unveiled a €1 billion support package last month to help the Western Balkans address the immediate consequences of the energy crisis and build resilience in the short and medium term.
The Western Balkans are also able to take part in the bloc's joint platform for voluntary joint purchases of gas and hydrogen to benefit from lower prices.
The bloc has also unlocked a €30 billion Economic and Investment Plan for the region aimed at boosting its green and digital transition as well as connectivity.
The summit risks however being overshadowed by the row between Serbia and Kosovo. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has threatened to boycott the event following a political appointment in Pristina.