"The Western Balkans region is the top priority for the external policy of the European Union," EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle told a news conference.
Wednesday's meeting of EU and Balkan foreign ministers aimed "to show clearly that there is not that much ground for enlargement fatigue among the member states," he said.
Of the nations that emerged from the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Slovenia has already joined the EU, Croatia is close to membership and Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia have all applied. To the south, Albania has also tabled its application.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which remains an international protectorate divided along ethnic lines, and Kosovo, whose independence Serbia and some EU countries have not recognised, are lagging behind.
"Today in Sarajevo the European Union and the Western Balkans decided to have a new deal on the future, a future of hope, a future of peace, a future of full integration into the European Union," said Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos, whose country initiated the meeting.
In a statement, the EU said the region faced "major challenges," including fighting organised crime and corruption, rule of law and judicial reform.
Little or no substance?
Although organisers billed the three-hour conference as the largest event bringing together EU and Balkan foreign ministers in a decade, many diplomats and local officials expected little change in its wake.
"There is no substance to any of it," one senior Western diplomat said. "It is just a feel-good event."
Another envoy said that 15 years after the war, Bosnians were tired of waiting to enjoy the prosperity of EU membership.
"People here don't believe the EU. The EU has a credibility problem," said the official, who did not want to be named. "What people are looking for is something tangible, something concrete."
The EU last year extended to citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia the right to travel without visas to the Schengen area, which includes most member states. Last week Brussels proposed widening that benefit to BiH and Albania this year (EurActiv 27/05/10).
Regional officials and diplomats say better ties among the former Yugoslav states in recent months could help integration.
"We know from history that you have to have a peaceful Balkans in order to have a peaceful Europe," Haris Silajdzic, chairman of Bosnia's three-man presidency, told Reuters.
Valentin Inzko, the top international envoy in Bosnia, said in an interview that a possible date for a group of Balkan nations to enter the EU could be 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One, which was triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)