The coming year could prove a turning point for the Euro-Atlantic prospects of the Western Balkans. Without doubt, their final status must be within the European Union and NATO. However, this assertion is so often repeated, and at the same time so true, that it runs the risk of becoming a truism. But what matters is when and under what conditions the region achieves EU and NATO membership. As regards Union prospects, the recent Thessaloniki European Council Summit proved a landmark event, with unforeseen and paradoxical consequences. In the period that preceded it, the expectations of Balkan states were raised to such an extent that thoughts of bestowing candidate status outright or «via the back door» seemed a realistic possibility. This raising of regional expectations was thus an integral part of the process that led to the Thessaloniki summit. In many ways what transpired in Thessaloniki can be viewed as a significant success. The Western Balkans were a central part of the agenda and the importance of their European prospects was highlighted. To quote a senior EU diplomat: «If we fail the Balkans, we fail altogether.» According to the summit’s conclusions, «the European Council… reiterates its determination to fully effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries.» Furthermore, a subsequent EU-Western Balkans declaration concluded in no uncertain or unclear terms that «the future of the Balkans is within the EU.» This rhetoric was backed by promises of increased regional financial support to some 200 million euros for the years 2004-2006 – a 12 percent increase. Nevertheless, despite these unqualified successes, Thessaloniki represented much gloomier prospects for all Western Balkan states. The conference did not offer candidate status. It provided modest financial incentives and aid; and it did not open access to pre-accession funds. The region thus reached a clear conclusion: EU membership is far away – actually further removed after Thessaloniki, despite the lavish attention and efforts that the Greek EU presidency bestowed upon the Western Balkans. But the reason for this paradox has much less to do with the shortcomings of the Thessaloniki conclusions per se, but is primarily related to the complications and challenges regarding the EU’s recent enlargement. EU influence and incentives for reforms in the Western Balkans will thus be diminished for at least the short term. This will undoubtedly complicate all efforts to combat organized crime and corruption and to strengthen the weaker states which are risking the loss of legitimacy. On the other hand, the USA’s regional influence will increase. Perhaps the best indication of this development is to be found in Serbia’s recent decision to send several hundred troops to Afghanistan. The important point is that for Western Balkan leaders, NATO membership is desirable, politically advantageous and feasible on a fast-track timetable that far surpasses anything that the EU could possibly offer the region. It is primarily this strategic calculation (its success depending upon active US support) which explains the Balkan states joining the Adriatic Charter, signing bilateral agreements with the US concerning the International Criminal Court (despite vocal EU protestations), and their general support for American policy on the second Gulf War and on Iraq generally. Unfortunately, involved in a high-stakes global campaign against terror, the US cannot provide the region with funds, incentives and membership prospects similar to that of the EU. Nevertheless, NATO membership within the next few years for most Western Balkan states can only be judged as a positive development, contributing to regional stability, decreasing security concerns and thus alleviating to a certain extent the problems associated with weak states, organized crime and corruption. It should be noted that an EU decision in December 2004 to provide Turkey with a reasonable date to begin accession negotiations could force the Western Balkans back to the top of the EU’s agenda. It would then be politically difficult to deny the region candidate status for much longer. In the final analysis, the international community, even with the most sincere and altruistic intentions, cannot comprehensively solve the problems in the Western Balkans. This task belongs to the region’s peoples and their governments. The peoples of the Western Balkans should stop asking what Europe can do for them, or even what they can do for Europe. They should constantly ask what they can do for themselves and their societies. (1) Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer in international politics at the University of Piraeus and a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). His new book is «International Relations and the Macedonian Question» (Athens, ELIAMEP, in Greek).