BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — As the world nervously watches whether European leaders can save the EU from breakup, another drama brews on the sidelines: the membership struggles of nations trying to break in.
On Friday, the day of a crucial EU summit on solving the continent's debt crisis, representatives of Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro will also be in Brussels pushing their bids to enter what increasingly looks like a crumbling house.
The irony is not lost on the Croatians, the closest to achieving their EU dreams.
Croatia's prime minister signs an EU accession treaty on Friday morning. The joke making the rounds is that by the afternoon the EU may no longer exist.
That's an exaggeration. But there are real fears that if leaders don't come up something big on Friday, the euro currency will fall apart, triggering a crisis that could lead to the dismantling of the entire European project.
For good luck, Croatia is signing the treaty with a pen Pope Benedict XVI presented to Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor during a visit this year.
"It's good that our prime minister promised to sign the agreement with a pen she got as a present from the pope because God only knows what she will be signing," said a commentary in the independent Vecernji List newspaper.
Serbia's officials will be in Brussels on Friday lobbying to remove new conditions set by Germany for its candidate status. Montenegrin representatives will try to get a fixed date for the start of its membership negotiations.
But amid the EU's turmoil, people in the Balkans are turning cold on Europe.
"The European Union is turning into a centralized and authoritarian creation led by Germany and France in which Croatia will lose its identity," said Zeljko Sacic, a leader of an anti-EU group that plans protests to coincide with the Brussels summit.
His view reflects the growing perception that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy are bullying poorer EU members into accepting their vision of Europe.
Kosor's conservative party was defeated in recent elections by a center-left coalition. The incoming government is considering a three-month delay to a December referendum on joining the EU — a necessary step for membership — apparently because of dwindling popular support for joining the bloc. Under the treaty being signed Friday, Croatia would be able to enter the EU in 2013.
In Serbia, the nationalist opposition is using Europe's troubles as fuel for their vehement opposition to EU membership. The hardliners are calling on the country's pro-Western government to turn its back on the EU and embrace the country's "traditional ally" — Russia.
It's a message that has gained traction amid outrage over new conditions set by Germany for granting Serbia EU candidate status, saying European powers just keep raising the bar to keep Serbia out. Only months ago, the arrest of Serb war crimes fugitives Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic was the only condition.
Now, people are asking whether EU membership is really such a big prize.
Serb support for the EU has dropped to some 40 percent — the worst since pro-democracy forces ousted former Serbian autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. EU-friendly governing parties have also plummeted in popularity, triggering speculation that the nationalists could return to power in elections next year.
"I'm convinced that the time is ripe for new policies and the determination of a new national goal, and that is not EU membership," said Vojislav Kostunica, a former nationalist prime minister who leads Serbia's conservative party.
Serbian President Boris Tadic warned that putting off Serbia's EU integration increases the danger of new instability in the Balkans.
"Serbia and the Balkans could once again sink into the darkness of nationalism and intolerance," Tadic said.
Darko Bandic in Croatia, Marko Drobnjakovic in Serbia and Predrag Milic in Montenegro contributed.