By RFE RL
By Rikard Jozwiak
(RFE/RL) — Montenegro and Serbia should be ready for EU membership in 2025 and Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia should be well-advanced on their path to EU accession by then, according to a draft of the European Commission’s Western Balkans strategy seen by RFE/RL.
The strategy, which is expected to be made public on February 6, is part of an EU effort to breathe new life into the accession process for the six Western Balkan countries that remain outside the bloc.
The draft seen by RFE/RL states that “the Western Balkan partners now have a historic window of opportunity” and that “for the first time their accession perspective has a best-case framework” — but adds that the timeline set out in the paper is realistic only if there is “strong political will, delivery of real reforms, and lasting solutions to disputes with neighbors.”
The timeline is “ambitious and is meant to be an incentive,” it says.
According to the document, 2019 will be a crucial year.
Albania and Macedonia should start EU accession negotiations by the end of 2019, provided that Tirana has implemented judicial reform and Skopje has resolved a bitter name dispute with Greece that has dogged the country since it gained independence from the collapsing Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the document says.
Greek and Macedonian negotiators will meet in New York on January 17 and leaders of both countries — as well as the UN envoy dealing with the matter, Matthew Nimetz — have said there is a window of opportunity to resolve the issue in 2018.
At the end of 2019, EU member states should also be in a position to grant EU candidate-country status to Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to draft.
It says that Serbia and Kosovo “will need at the latest by this stage to have achieved comprehensive normalization of relations, which should open the way for further substantial progress by Kosovo on the path to European integration.”
The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina started in 2011 and has so far produced agreements in areas such as freedom of movement, justice, and the status of the Serbian minority in Kosovo — as well as enabling Serbia to start EU accession talks and Brussels to sign an Association Agreement with Kosovo.
In a nod to fractious relationships between many of the counties in the region, the document states that “the EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes. This is why all Western Balkans partners concerned must resolve such disputes as a matter of urgency ahead of their future accession to the European Union.”
It also underlines that “as a matter of principle, the front-runners on the EU path have a strategic interest in being advocates, not spoilers, of the aspirations of their neighbors.”
By 2023, the strategy says, EU member states should be in a position to agree to closing EU accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, and Bosnia should open accession talks the same year. EU accession treaties with Serbia and Montenegro should be ratified by all EU member states two years later, allowing for membership by the end of 2025.
The timeline is “indicative only,” the document states, saying that “countries can move faster but may also move slower.”
EU diplomats with whom RFE/RL has spoken under the condition of anonymity have said they believe that many EU member states, particularly France and Germany, will find the time frame too ambitious and would prefer if no dates were mentioned.
The strategy might be discussed by EU heads of state and government already at their next summit in Brussels, in March, and is certain to be discussed during the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia on May 17.