The European Union is preparing to set 2025 as a deadline for the next wave of enlargement, even though disputes within the Balkans could hold things back, a draft document obtained by EUobserver revealed.
The document will make clear that the EU will accept new members, which is a shift in tone since European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2014 there would be no EU enlargement in the foreseeable future.
All six Western Balkans countries are aspiring EU members, but are at different stages of the enlargement process.
"The Western Balkans partners now have a historic window of opportunity. For the first time, their accession perspective has a best-case timeframe," EUobserver said quoting a draft internal document from the European Commission, which is due to be published on February 14.
The text further reads that "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."
Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo "should also be well advanced on their European path by then", or their "negotiations … should be well advanced," it said.
Only Serbia and Montenegro have launched membership talks with the EU so far. Albania and Macedonia hope to start the accession talks this year depending on the implementation of judicial reforms in Albania and if Macedonia solves its long-standing name dispute with Greece.
Greece is blocking Macedonia’s accession because it objects to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province with the same name. However, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev recently said that the name dispute could be solved by June this year.
Bosnia is hoping to gain EU candidate status, while Kosovo is thinking of officially asking to be granted candidate status.
However, the commission document warned that “local disputes” could make it hard to meet the "ambitious" deadline.
"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 document said.
Aside from the Macedonian-Greek dispute, another thorny issue is Serbia's non-recognition of Kosovo's independence.
The document said 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.
Kosovo has also concluded a border demarcation agreement with Montenegro, but the authorities are now refusing to implement the deal, which is a precondition for further EU advancement.
The document proposed that border issues should be solved by international arbitration, for example in The Hague, and that any rulings must be "binding, final" and "fully respected".