BELGRADE – Former Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle told an audience on Wednesday that if the EU distances itself from the Western Balkans, other geopolitical players will immediately seize the opportunity to assert their influence over the region, EurActiv.com reports.

The ex-Commissioner, who now works as a special envoy to the Balkans for the Czech ministry of foreign affairs, spoke to the BALKANS – boosting connections on the road to the EU conference, organised by the Friends of Europe, a Brussels think tank.

The current pace of enlargement is not sustainable, said Füle, who was in charge of this portfolio in the Barroso Commission from 2010 to 2014. He appeared to be referring to the current “pause” in enlargement, declared by current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who said that no new member will join the EU during his term.

In the meantime, Russia and Turkey are making efforts to fill the vacuum.

Russia is relying on its close relations with Serbia, reinforced during the 1999 NATO airstrikes over the Kosovo crisis, and is reported to be attempting to change the political direction of Montenegro, which recently joined NATO.

For its part, Turkey has a growing appetite for its former Ottoman territories, where a majority of Muslims live, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Kosovo and parts of Macedonia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently spoke of Turkey’s “borders of the heart”, mentioning the capital of Macedonia, Skopje and even the Bulgarian city of Kardzhali.

Füle said that the Western Balkans’ progress so far, on the way to EU enlargement, was still too fragile to acknowledge that the point of no return has been reached. Any disengagement by the EU from the region would result in “other forces engaging immediately”, he said.

Füle also argued that since the Brexit referendum, with an EU member disengaging, the countries of the Western Balkans (Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina) no longer could buy the argument that they are “part of Europe”.

Goran Svilanović, a Serbian diplomat who leads the Regional Cooperation Council, a Sarajevo-based centre fostering euro-Atlantic integration in the Western Balkans, was perhaps even more critical.

He said that since the Dutch referendum on the Ukraine association agreement, Western Balkans states no longer believed that their EU accession was credible, EurActiv.com reports.