By the end of 2011, under the Polish EU Presidency, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo should all receive EU candidate status, a policy paper by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) advocates.
Keeping the Western Balkan waiting indefinitely for EU accession carries a growing risk both for those countries and the European Union, warns the latest report from ECFR, a pan-European think-tank.
The authors of the policy paper see a risk that the current economic crisis turns into a broader crisis, with the EU having to send additional diplomats and soldiers to the Balkans to deal with renewed instability.
To avoid such a scenario, the position paper outlines a number of steps to be taken to keep the region on track for EU-modelled reform, without being costly for the Union.
The ECFR report says that the EU should take as a model the visa liberalisation effort, which set clear benchmarks, motivated national authorities and achieved its goals.
Last December, visa barriers were lifted for citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, and similar progress is expected this autumn with regard to nationals of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania.
On the same basis, the EU should send questionnaires - the first step before deciding whether to grant a country candidate status - to each of the three countries that have not yet received one: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia, the ECFR writes.
The questionnaire would allow a screening process to start and introduce "a much-needed note of realism" about what needs to be done on both sides in the years to come, it explained.
Kosovo 'on parallel track'
Referring to the status of Kosovo (see 'Background'), the ECFR advises Serbia to recognise Kosovo's customs stamps and stop undermining regional cooperation by preventing its former province from participating in regional initiatives from energy to transport.
As for Kosovo, the EU should turn its Stabilisation and Association Process Dialogue into a "full, status-neutral pre-accession exercise," the think-tank advocates. 'Status-neutral' in diplomatic jargon means that the EU should not wade into the controversy over Kosovo's statehood.
If Serbia hands in its answers to the questionnaire before the end of the year, the Commission will prepare its opinion in 2011 in parallel to the screening process. The Commission would also invite Kosovo to participate in a joint screening exercise in order to keep it on a parallel track.
As the region is plagued by bilateral disputes, the ECFR proposes the creation of a new chapter in the accession negotiations. This would be the only venue to discuss such issues, so they would not spill over into other chapters and block negotiations.
The EU is advised to insert a special clause into every new EU accession treaty, starting with Croatia, to prevent new members from blocking the accession negotiations of future countries.
By the end of 2011, under Poland's EU presidency, all the countries could have completed screening and achieved candidate status, the think-tank concludes.
EurActiv asked Heather Grabbe, one of the authors of the ECFR report, if the ideas presented were far away from prevailing views in the EU executive on future enlargement.
She explained that the objective of this report was to "push beyond what politicians are willing to discuss publicly".
She also insisted that the report was not advocating setting dates for future accessions, or nor a level playing field for all the Western Balkan countries. The technical phase of the questionnaires and the screening should be done together, so that in the next phase the countries could compete with one another, she explained.
"We would rather like to see more regional competition, so that countries develop a different dynamic rather than passively sitting and waiting for the EU to tell them what the next step should be," Grabbe said.