As I argue in a new brief about Balkan policy, the meeting could not come at a better time. The region is beginning to look dicey once again. Though Balkan countries were asked by the West to proceed along the reform-laden route towards EU accession, which entails reforming their economies, making friends with erstwhile enemies and adjusting their constitutions, there is now uncertainty whether the EU actually wants them to join the club. Unsurprisingly, Balkan leaders are becoming less inclined to introduce difficult reforms.
On the other hand, postponing accession risks damaging hard-won progress on regional peace and stability. If the Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims have no common EU destiny, then many fear they will have no incentive to cooperate.
So, is there a way to manage both sets of risks? Yes, because the choice between a “go-fast” and a “go-slow” approach to the region’s EU integration is actually false. Since 2004, the EU accession process has become ever more demanding, and the fast-track to accession closed long ago. There are now tougher requirements for opening and closing negotiations. No area of negotiation – from an applicant country’s environmental standards to competition laws - is ever more than provisionally finished, with the European Commission now demanding concrete implementation of laws, rather than just promises. People have learnt from the Bulgarian and Romanian experience.
EU members have at least 75 veto-points where they have to agree unanimously for an applicant country to advance. Even Croatia, if it accedes as expected around 2013, will have taken ten years from its date of application and eight years from the start of accession talks. The other Western Balkans states, which lag well behind Croatia, cannot hope to start talks before 2012. So their best-case accession date already lies beyond 2020.