BRUSSELS, 10. MARCH 2017 (EURACTIV) – EU leaders voiced concern about “external influences” fueling division in the Western Balkans, as Britain announced a summit to focus efforts on stabilising a key region vulnerable to Russian meddling. EU leaders placed the Balkans high on the agenda of their summit in Brussels to show that despite ethnic tensions and the scars from wars fought in the 1990s, the region is a priority for the European Union, particularly as Russia also seeks to increase its influence there. “The Western Balkan countries have an unequivocal European perspective,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission which is leading membership negotiations with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. “We are not stepping away, but stepping in,” he said. The EU warned yesterday (6 March) that the Western Balkans risk becoming a “chessboard” in a game between major powers, as Britain accused Russia of meddling in the region. Two years ago, Juncker said no new countries would join the EU during his mandate at the Commission, which runs until 2019. Officials said that was a technicality because the Balkans were not ready to join. But some in the region say the message damaged the EU’s credibility. Despite some progress over the past five years, reforms across the region to the judiciary and the business climate have stalled, allowing organised crime to flourish and encouraging more migrants to head north to the EU. Sources said that the European perspective of the Western Balkans has been weakened and it is no longer inspiring, “therefore, the rise of nationalism cannot be restrained”. “After 20 years of relative calm in the region, the Balkan demons return,” the same sources said, underlining that there is escalating political tension and problems related to the functioning of the democratic institutions. Britain will hold a special summit on the Western Balkans in 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May said, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel also stressed the importance of the region. “I will make clear my concerns about the potential for increased instability in that region and the risks that presents to our collective security,” Theresa May said. “In light of the alleged Montenegro coup plot, I will call for us do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and raise the visibility of the Western commitment to this region,” May added. EU president Donald Tusk said separately that “tensions and divisions have got out of hand partly due to unhealthy external influences which have been destabilising several countries for some time”. “The EU remains … fully committed to the stability and prosperity of the region. I want leaders to reconfirm the EU perspective for the Western Balkans,” he said. “For the countries in the Balkans [the commitment to further EU enlargement] matters,” a senior EU official said. “There’s a sense that their European path has slipped away. But their only path is towards the EU.” Another diplomat told EURACTIV that the real problem for the EU would be when Western Balkan countries have concluded the accession talks. “The chances for ratification of their accession treaties in countries like the Netherlands or France today is very slim,” he said.