By ERIC MAURICE
SOFIA, 12. JAN, 13:46
A 2025 deadline for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is "realistic" but will depend on the region's countries efforts to meet the criteria, according to Bulgaria's foreign minister Ekaterina Zaharieva, whose country now has the rotating EU Council presidency.
"If all the society and political leaders focus on that and implement key reforms, it's not unrealistic," she told EUobserver in Sofia on Thursday (11 January)
"It depends on each of the [region's] countries, on how fast they deliver," she said, insisting that "of course, they will know that if they are not ready there will be no agreement for membership."
"The rules are clear for everybody," she added.
The 2025 target is to be formalised next month by the European Commission.
"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 says in a draft document seen by EUobserver.
The EU Balkan strategy will be discussed in May, at a summit in Sofia with the region's countries - Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
Giving them a "European perspective" - rather than a formal promise for membership - is one of the priorities set by Bulgaria for its presidency of the EU Council, which started on 1 January.
'Time to focus'
"It's time to focus on Western Balkan countries," Zaharieva told journalists in a press conference on Friday.
Seen from Sofia, it is a matter of security as well as EU influence on its doorstep.
Prime Minister Boyko Borisov noted that China's interest in the region was "growing" and that "Russia might try to see greater influence." And he warned the bloc of the perils of inaction in the region, saying Brussels had been warned: "If we [the EU] don't do something about it, we should not have our feelings hurt."
Borisov insisted that for the EU, the "least-risk option" was to "think about" the Western Balkan and improve their infrastructure.
Bulgaria is pushing for railways, highways and energy projects in the region in order to win people's hearts and minds and increase economic links. Other ideas as the extension of roaming-free communications and of EU's free-wifi plans are also on the table.
"Europe can be stable, secure and developed only if the Western Balkans are stable, secure and developed," Zaharieva argued.
She pointed to the region's young generation, and said that an EU perspective would bring "ethnic stability" and "geopolitical security" in Europe.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, who will travel in the region before the May summit, backed Bulgaria's ambitions.
"We'll have to take a closer and more targeted look to make sure they have the confirmation of a clear perspective," he said in Sofia on Friday.
Otherwise, he warned, "we may be looking at possible events that could lead us back to the 90s" - a reference to the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The minister stressed that a "perspective" was not a promise of membership and noted that the Western Balkan's six countries were each in different situations.
Montenegro is the most advanced in its negotiations with the EU, with 30 chapters already opened and three closed
Serbia is the second in line and could open "two or three" new chapters during Bulgaria's EU presidency.
Albania and Macedonia are candidate countries, but Macedonia - officially named Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia - has to first settle the dispute with Greece over its name.
Zaharieva said that she could see "really positive signals" in talks between Athens and Skopje on the issue.
The Greek and Macedonians have intensified their discussions in recent weeks and aim at an agreement this year.
"The name cannot stay like this," the Bulgarian minister noted, adding that Macedonia "should add something" to its name, in order to show that the country is not the same as the geographical Macedonia, which also covers parts of Greece and Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, are far behind.
The government in Sarajevo has not answered the European Commission questionnaire that is needed to start considering a membership application. And Kosovo is still not recognized by five EU member states.
In order to keep a political momentum towards closest links, Zaharieva called on all Western Balkan countries to show "reform hunger rather than reform fatigue."
She added that in return, the EU should "show that if and when they're ready with the pre-accession conditions, the door will be open."