* The article is published on the website of the New Federalist.

A rising star is above the former State Union. Designated in Juncker’s State of the Union speech last September as frontrunners in the EU integration process, Montenegro and Serbia have a true zest for this path. The upcoming moths are therefore essential to hitch their wagon to that star.

Having started negotiations with the EU in 2012 and 2014 respectively, Montenegro and Serbia are indeed the regional leaders in the integration process, leaving other Western Balkan countries far behind. Moreover, the 2018 political agenda seems like the menu à la carte for their European aspirations.

What’s on the menu then? The upcoming Enlargement Strategy Paper of the Commission, which will be published at the beginning of February, will undoubtedly confirm this determination to foster the accession of both countries if certain criteria are met. “We have set 2025 as an indicative date for Serbia and Montenegro, which is realistic but also very ambitious”, European Commissioner Johannes Hahn told. It is a significant leap due to the enlargement fatigue which was explicit at the very beginning of Juncker’s mandate in 2014.

The Paper will certainly reaffirm the eligibility criteria for their accession, emphasizing the rule of law package. Both Serbia and Montenegro have an objective struggle to achieve that criterion on which they cannot substantially negotiate. Rule of law means that one must respect the rules commonly agreed upon. Simply put, one must either take the rule of law package as imposed by the Union or leave it.

Conditions remain

The Union is particularly sensitive to these areas, formulated mostly in Chapters 23 and 24 of the negotiation framework. Montenegro still needs to improve the fight against organized crime and corruption, as well as ensuring a merit-based employment in the public sector. Serbia, on the other hand, has to show in practice the results of judicial reforms, the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, and the institution building.

Furthermore, there are two specific areas for each country which ought to be approached zealously. Montenegro’s main challenge surely lies in the monetary field, since that country uses the Euro as a currency despite not being part of the Eurozone. It implies a stricter acquis regulation and more stringent obligations which require very demanding fiscal measures and grubby deals.

For Serbia, it is Chapter 35, dealing with the normalization of the relations with Kosovo. A viable, legally binding agreement would please all sides, including the EU, who wants to show the practical success story of its external relations efforts.

EU diplomatic offensive

Putting Western Balkans as one of the top priorities of its EU Presidency, Bulgaria will moreover organize a top-level Balkan Summit in May in Sofia. Followed by the Austrian EU presidency, it is another opportunity for Western Balkans to advocate their diplomatic goals.

Likewise, the London Summit in the scope of the Berlin Process in July will be a lure to reap the benefits, primarily in the context of energy and road connectivity areas. In addition, the RECOM initiative for the institutionalized approach towards reconciliation never seemed closer to be achieved. An ambitious and far-sighted program, it would be a concrete move forward for the establishment of a sustainable peace in the Western Balkans.

Wake-up call

Coming down to earth (or just to the Western Balkans), the issue of lack of delivery appears as a chronical excuse for their delay in the path to EU accession. Notwithstanding all initiatives, the desired result can be easily missed unless these countries do their homework. Building strong, resilient societies – with a robust democracy, human rights, good governance, jobs and education – everything which the EU has been promoting through its enlargement process – are the crucial tasks for Serbia and Montenegro.

The 2018 menu is full of political delights and diplomatic delicacies. Yet, to hitch the abovementioned wagon to the stars, homework needs to be done.