the economist logoPRISTINA / TIRANA – Ever since the end of the Balkan wars in 1999, the most important question in the region has been when and how to join the European Union. Slovenia made it in 2004 and Croatia followed in 2013. For the rest, however, the goal is still far off. The prospects of Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia—all at different stages of EU integration—have appeared stuck for some time.

But recent months brought progress, mostly unnoticed in the rest of crisis-ridden Europe. On August 25th Kosovo and Serbia signed several EU-aided agreements, including one giving Kosovo’s Serb-dominated municipalities more rights. The EU also mediated an agreement leading to new elections in Macedonia, where a political crisis had come to boiling point. An unworkable EU policy blocking Bosnia’s advancement was abandoned.

This time round German diplomats are playing an even bigger role. The European Commission does nothing in the Balkans now, says one senior diplomat, “without a green light from Germany”. Another big player has also discreetly returned to the game. America, which after 1999 gradually disappeared from the Balkans, is now far more active again, often helping the EU with timely diplomatic shoves. American officials played a leading role in pressing Kosovo to pass a law on August 3rd to create an EU-backed war-crimes court. They also helped to secure a deal to end the Macedonian crisis in July.

There are several reasons why the Balkans are attracting more attention in Western capitals. Corruption, nationalism and extremism are all on the rise. Some Muslims are going to Syria to fight for the Islamic State. Sympathy for Russia is rising in some countries. Serbia’s plans to take part in Russian military exercises earned it sharp public rebukes from farther west. Bekim Collaku, Kosovo’s minister for EU integration, says: “From a strategic point of view the EU needs to accelerate the process.” Enlargement may be unpopular in many member states, but the cost of delay is rising.