SPLIT, Croatia (AP) - In the shadows of a remarkably well-preserved Roman palace teeming with European tourists, a tattered poster depicts a fugitive general wanted on U.N. war crimes charges.
"Hero!" it declares, defying those who insist the man widely hailed as a patriot must be captured before Croatia can make it into the rapidly expanding European Union.
The scene in this sun-kissed Adriatic seaport -- well-off EU visitors sipping wine and snapping up souvenirs in a poor country with a turbulent past and an uncertain future -- underscores the disconnect between the nations of the Balkans and the coveted club they're struggling to join.
As the 25-nation bloc turns inward to deal with the crisis over its constitution, a bitter squabble over its budget, and jitters over mostly Muslim Turkey's quest for membership, debate is also growing over what to do with a rough neighborhood some call "Europe's ghetto."
Supporters of bringing Balkan nations into the bloc contend that taking in the region is the best way to ease the continent's largest security liability, and insist the EU will never be complete without it.
Opponents counter that it makes no sense to absorb countries where indicted war crimes suspects can elude capture with impunity, and where economies are heavily dependent on foreign aid and tourism.
"They are isolated from their own dreams," former Italian premier Giuliano Amato said of the region at a recent conference that called for an EU-Balkans summit next year.
Caught in the middle are ordinary citizens like Paula Lalic, a Croat innkeeper who's tired of seeing her homeland pressured to change its ways for nearly a decade by a Europe that suddenly appears to be withdrawing the carrot of membership.
"I'm not even sure what the point is any more," she said. "We have a beautiful country where everything works. They all come here to play, but if they don't want us, fine. Who needs them?"
Croatia had hoped to join in 2007 along with Bulgaria and Romania, but EU leaders have put membership talks on ice. Officially, the reason is Croatia's failure to capture Gen. Ante Gotovina, wanted since 1991 for wartime atrocities against Serbs.
But the backdrop is a growing sense that for problematic countries, the EU -- at least temporarily -- is closed for business.
In much of western Europe, there's been a backlash since the bloc took in 10 mostly ex-communist newcomers last year. It was evident in the recent French and Dutch rejections of the proposed EU constitution -- referendums seen as popular revolts that laid bare frustrations over a union many are convinced is already too unwieldy.
Although the incentives for joining are numerous -- lucrative subsidies, free trade and movement of workers and the promise of foreign investment -- people from Split to Sarajevo are losing heart.
"People here are not interested in Europe very much. They are occupied by their own problems, like how to survive and feed their children," said Milorad Zivanovic, a professor of philosophy in Banja Luka, the self-styled capital of Bosnia's Serb mini-state.
Two years ago, holding out the promise of prosperity to an economically shaky region still steeped in ethnic strife, EU leaders at a summit in Greece laid out an ambitious plan to give the Balkans a road map to membership -- perhaps as early as 2010.
But that plan has gone nowhere fast. The risks of absorbing the former Yugoslavia, which descended into a decade of bloodletting in the 1990s, are enormous.
Nationalism, corruption, cronyism and racketeering are rampant, and peacekeepers still patrol a region where human rights and the rule of law are patchy. As recently as 2001, Macedonia -- which hopes to open EU entry talks next year -- nearly imploded when ethnic Albanian insurgents took up arms to fight for greater rights.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has cautioned the EU not to abandon the region, pointing to its "common strategic interests in preserving peace and stability."
On a recent visit to Kosovo, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns echoed that view, saying the United States wants a Europe that is "united, secure and peaceful -- and that can only happen if the Balkans are part of it."
But to join, members must have functioning democracies and market economies and be ready to write into their national laws the entire package of EU rules and regulations, from agricultural standards to antitrust policy.
Many in countries whose leaders are struggling to slash spending, shrink black-market economies and shut down unprofitable state enterprises felt betrayed when EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called this month for an expansion slowdown because Europeans need "time to breathe."
"By the time we get there, the European Union will no longer exist," said Rajko Susic, 34, of Serbia.
Even in Croatia, the most advanced of the Balkan candidates, disillusionment abounds.
Fewer than one in two Croats backs EU entry -- the most lukewarm support the bloc has ever seen in a candidate country.
Many insist Croatia, which political analyst Ines Sabalic says is desperate "to escape the sewers of the Balkans," is far more stable and prosperous than Bulgaria or Romania. The Gotovina issue, they say, is a flimsy ruse to keep it out of the club.
"When Gotovina is extradited, those against us will think of something new to set us back," complained Mislav Racki, a law student in Zagreb.