European Union leaders will meet their Balkan counterparts Thursday to hold out the promise of closer links to counter Russian influence, while steering clear of openly offering them membership.
The summit comes a day after a dinner of the 28 EU leaders focused on forging a united front in the face of US President Donald Trump's "capricious assertiveness" on the Iran nuclear deal and trade tariffs.
Six Balkan leaders from Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo will attend the summit.
Spain's prime minister is staying away because his country, roiled by the Catalan independence drive, does not recognise Kosovo's 2008 split from Serbia.
"We will meet our Western Balkan partners collectively for the first time in 15 years. It will be an opportunity for both sides to reaffirm that the European perspective remains the Western Balkans' geostrategic choice," EU president Donald Tusk said.
Tusk said the bloc would invest in infrastructure connections with the Balkans to boost development and bring them up to EU standards.
"I hope to bring our Western Balkan friends closer to the EU."
The EU is increasingly looking to take its fate into its own hands as a transatlantic rift grows with Trump, who withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal and wants to slap tariffs on European steel and aluminium.
Tusk launched a stinging attack Wednesday on Trump, while adding that he was helping Europe in a way because it had "got rid of all illusions" that it can rely on Washington.
"Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, someone could even think with friends like that who needs enemies," Tusk told reporters in Sofia on Wednesday.
- Macedonia, Greece to meet -
After suspending any enlargement four years ago, the European Commission recently unveiled its 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 getting increasingly impatient for a path to membership. Bulgaria's prime minister recently warned Russia and China will otherwise gain toeholds in the region.
In the summit declaration, a draft of which was obtained by AFP, the Europeans outlined the theme of "connectivity" with investments in transport and infrastructure.
But the declaration avoids using the words "adhesion" or "enlargement" -- EU code words for the path to membership of the bloc.
"This is not a subject for Sofia," a senior EU official insisted, adding that membership issues would 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.
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.
The leaders of Macedonia and Greece are expected to meet on the sidelines of the summit although officials played down the chance of any deal.
© 2018 AFP