Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has contributed to Ukraine and Moldova gaining candidate status in June 2023, giving a new impetus to the European Union’s (EU) enlargement policy. With many Western Balkan countries stuck in the accession process for more than a decade, the debate on reforming the accession process is gaining momentum again, and 2030 is increasingly being mentioned as an expected date for new members to join the Union. What is the current situation of the candidate states, and how should the EU reform itself to be ready for the accession of new countries?
In the past, the EU’s enlargement policy was considered the most successful part of the EU’s foreign policy. The increase in member states from six to 28 (after the departure of the UK to 27) is an impressive result of European integration on almost the entire European continent. However, recently, enlargement has had a reputation for being a frozen policy in which candidate states have little chance of success, and each step takes an extremely long time. Enlargement suffers from several problems and challenges, ranging from the EU’s absorption capacity, which means the bloc’s ability to absorb and integrate new states in all policies, to the inability or unwillingness of candidate countries to converge political, social or economic norms at home with those in the EU. After years of stalemate, enlargement has moved on in the wake of Russian aggression in Ukraine, and most recently, European Council President Charles Michel said that the EU must be ready to welcome new member states by 2030. This statement is surprising as there are no fixed dates for accession in the enlargement process. The European Commission responded to Michel with the remark that the EU is not committing itself to a specific date but to working with the candidate countries. However, Olivér Várhelyi, the Hungarian Commissioner responsible for enlargement, sided more with the Council president and said, contrary to the Commission’s position, that in 2030, the Union should be ready to welcome new members.
EU enlargement is a rather complicated process based on meeting the accession criteria that each country applying for membership must fulfil. The so-called Copenhagen criteria include the political area (democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights), the economic area (market economy, competitiveness) and the administrative and institutional area, in which a Member State must conclude all accession chapters of the so-called acquis communautaire, i.e. European law. The membership application is approved unanimously by all countries, and then the formal accession process of concluding the individual chapters of the acquis begins. Finally, the EU Council unanimously agrees, and then the European Parliament must accept the country’s accession. However, the accession process has been frozen in recent years. Croatia last joined the EU in 2013, preceded by Romania and Bulgaria (2007), and the most significant wave of enlargement was in 2004, when eight Central and Eastern European countries joined, with the addition of Malta and Cyprus. Currently, eight countries have candidate status, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Moldova, Northern Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. However, the countries are at different positions in the accession negotiations, and some Balkan states have been waiting for EU accession for more than a decade, while others have only gained candidate status last year.
The accession process is really a long haul. However, what is the current state of accession negotiations with the individual Western Balkan countries and the trio of Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova? The latter two countries were granted candidate status in June 2022, and the EU is ready to give Georgia this status as well, provided that the priorities set by the Commission will be met. Over the past year, however, the Georgians have failed to meet twelve conditions. On the contrary, politicians tend to steer the country towards a more illiberal democracy. The strategic partnership with China and the public opinion of the majority of Georgians about deepening economic relations with Russia are also not conducive to a positive development towards EU membership. Georgia will, therefore, await the Council’s assessment of its progress.
The Western Balkan countries are also at different positions in the accession process. Montenegro and Serbia are the furthest along in the talks, negotiating individual chapters, while Montenegro has already opened 33 out of 35 chapters and Serbia 22. Both countries have been in the process for a long time since the EU granted candidate status to Montenegro in 2010 and Serbia in 2012. Northern Macedonia was granted candidate status in 2005 after Bulgaria’s objections were resolved and started accession negotiations in 2022. Albania, which is in the “one package” with North Macedonia, waited for the resolution of other countries’ disputes and started accession negotiations in 2022. Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a similar situation to Georgia, having been granted candidate status by the EU in December 2022, conditional on fulfilling a number of conditions in areas such as public administration reform, state functioning and democracy. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s reform progress is limited. It has been struggling with internal problems linked to the division into two autonomous entities and the Brcko district after the Dayton Peace Agreement, and eventual membership is elusive. Among the Balkan states, Kosovo is a potential candidate country. However, five EU states, including Slovakia, do not recognise it, hindering further progress. A different case within the enlargement policy is the position of Turkey, which obtained candidate status in 1999. It has experienced several phases of interaction with the EU, but due to the deteriorating state of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, the accession process is stalled, and there is very little likelihood that it will be successfully resumed in the coming years.
The EU’s enlargement policy to include new Member States seems to be shaping more realistically than recently. Since the start of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the EU has taken a more strategic rather than technocratic approach to granting candidate status and progressing in accession negotiations. It is hardly conceivable that countries such as Ukraine or Moldova would have been granted candidate status if the traditional pre-war approach had continued. For the time being, much depends on the candidate countries themselves to carry out the necessary reforms that the bloc requires because, despite the changing geopolitical situation, it is not possible to accept countries that do not meet the Copenhagen criteria and are not aligned with European law. At the same time, there is a debate on whether the EU should modify the accession process. There are voices that the process as we have traditionally known it is obsolete. One of the modifications for the new geopolitical reality is the so-called differentiated integration, i.e. only partial membership in the Union with potentially limited voting powers should be given a place for new members. When considering enlargement to include more than five new states, it is also legitimate to discuss the necessary reform of the Union itself, from its common agricultural policy to a guaranteed seat on the Commission for each Member State. At the same time, the EU is aware of Russia’s influence operations in all candidate countries, which include large-scale disinformation campaigns. Granting candidate status and more transparent rules and procedures for EU accession can help combat the negative narratives spread by Moscow. Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission President, commented on EU enlargement during her last (under her current mandate) State of the European Union speech on 13 September 2023. However, she did not provide many details. She acknowledged the possible need to revise the treaties to reform the EU and explicitly mentioned Ukraine’s future EU membership several times, as well as countries like Moldova and Serbia. However, she did not comment on the timetable or the possible limited membership of new countries. We must, therefore, await further details after the ministerial discussions and the Commission’s evaluation reports on the progress of individual countries and the possible opening of the accession process to other states.