EUobserver: EU sets date for next wave of enlargement, possibility for Western Balkan countries' accession in 2025

EUobserver: EU sets date for next wave of enlargement, possibility for Western Balkan countries' accession in 2025
The EU is preparing to pledge a 2025 deadline for the next wave of enlargement, but Balkans disputes could hold things back, EUobserver reported on Tuesday.

'The Western Balkans partners now have a historic window of opportunity. For the first time, their accession perspective has a best-case timeframe,' the commission is to say in a strategy paper to be adopted either on 7 or 14 February.

'With strong political will, the delivery of real reforms, and lasting solutions to disputes with neighbours, Montenegro and Serbia should be ready for membership by 2025,' the text is to add, according to a draft seen by EUobserver.

It aims to say Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo 'should also be well advanced on their European path by then', or, according to alternative words in brackets, that their 'negotiations … should be well advanced.'

The paper marks a shift in tone after commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2014 there would be no EU enlargement in the foreseeable future.

Serbia and Montenegro have already opened accession talks. Albania and Macedonia are hoping to do it this year, if Macedonia can resolve its name dispute with Greece. Bosnia is angling to gain EU 'candidate' status, while Kosovo is considering to formally ask to be named a candidate.

The commission paper warned that local disputes could hold back what it called its 'ambitious' timeline.

'The EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes. This is why all the Western Balkans partners concerned must resolve such disputes as a matter of urgency,' the draft said.

It proposed that border issues should be solved by international arbitration, for instance in The Hague, and that any rulings must be 'binding, final' and 'fully respected'.

The thorniest dispute is Serbia's non-recognition of Kosovo's independence. The commission paper said, nodding to Belgrade, that 'frontrunners on the EU path have a strategic interest' in advocating the EU 'aspirations of their partners'. It added that a 'comprehensive normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo in the form of a legally-binding agreement' was 'crucial' for both their EU prospects.

Juncker's Balkans agenda is taking shape under Bulgaria's six-month EU presidency, which started on 1 January. The EU will hold a Western Balkans summit on 18 May in Sofia - the 15th anniversary of a previous EU event in Thessaloniki, Greece, when member states first promised to take in the region.

The commission also aims to publish its regular progress reports on the Balkans aspirants in April.

'We will decide … in the next eight, nine months how to proceed with each and every of these countries,' Juncker's spokesman said on Monday.

Brussels, 9 January 2018 (MIA)

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