EU Enlargement: ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’

Photo: Pixabay



Author: Ioana Onu 


Prior to 2016, EU membership has been taken for granted by many, especially in Western Europe. Indeed, for the younger generations an EU daily reality is everything they have ever known. However, for many Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia this has only become a reality quite recently (2007 and 2013 respectively). More importantly, there are many European countries (Western Balkan states and Turkey) that still have not been granted the EU membership despite their willingness to be an EU member state. Out of these states, a number of them are considered ‘candidate’ countries, which have applied for EU membership and are currently in the process of transposing EU legislation into their national law: Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, The Former Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey. There is also a list of ‘potential candidates’ comprising of states which do not yet fulfil the EU membership requirements: Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.



EU enlargement process


Becoming a EU Member State is an intricate procedure which starts with satisfying the conditions for membership, also known as the Copenhagen criteria: (1) the capability of effectively implementing the membership obligations (the aims of the economic, monetary and political union) and acceptance of all EU legislation, including the euro; (2) strongly democratic institutions that uphold and protect the rule of law, minorities, and human rights, and (3) an efficient market economy that can manage the market forces and competition in the EU. Countries wishing to apply for membership can submit an application to the Council, which in turn will request the Commission to assess their ability to meet the criteria above.


Once the Commission provides a positive answer, a negotiation mandate can be started by the Council, with negotiations taking place subject by subject. The negotiation process ranges from the timing and conditions of the adoption, to the implementation and enforcement of the EU acquis, and is divided into 35 different policy chapters and other transitional and financial arrangements. Consequently, it can take extensive time to complete. Once the Commission analyses the candidate’s progress and all the EU governments are satisfied with each chapter’s development, the Accession Treaty is drawn with specific deadlines and arrangements.


This will be final and binding once the EU Council, the European Parliament, and the Commission support the agreement, and once each EU country and the candidate country signed and ratified it according to their constitutions. Nonetheless, this simply transforms the candidate into an ascending state with an ‘active observer’s status’ (“entitled to speak, but not vote” - European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations), which will only become a full EU member on the date provided by the treaty.





The Western Balkan states (as mentioned in the paragraph above, except Turkey) have additional requirements for membership, encompassed in the ‘Stabilisation and Association Process’, a series of agreements adapted to each country’s specific situation. Their aim is to establish a free trade area between the EU and each state, while recognising shared objectives (economic and political) and encouraging regional cooperation and reconciliation. This is because of the perceived need to politically stabilise the countries and promote their transition to a market economy through economic development and trade assistance.


The EU endeavours to support the process by ensuring a close partnership which helps them form a base for adopting and implementing European, EU and international standards. This approach can be seen in the EU’s encouragement of the creation of a regional common market between six countries in the region. This would hopefully be agreed upon in the 12 July Trieste summit and would remove trade barriers and obstacles, and would standardise the rules for business. Moreover, this would prepare the candidate states for entering the single market and would potentially strengthen their economy (Euractiv, 2017). The reason for this ‘special’ treatment is the unique history of wars surrounding Yugoslavia’s break-up which led to extensive crises regarding the identity of the people in the region, their self-perceptions as victors and victims, strong and deeply entrenched feelings in relation to their neighbours, and the question of prosecuting war criminals previously perceived as war heroes. Consequently, it is hoped that a potential regional common market could also calm the ethnic tensions in the area and reinvigorate their diplomatic relations.



Western Balkans - State of play


Progress was made in all states towards the EU membership by March 2017. Out of the candidates, Albania has met seven out of its 12 key priorities; however, within the five countries left, the implementation of its judicial reform was still notably outstanding. Additionally, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has also made substantial progress in its implementation of the reforms seen as urgent priorities, while Montenegro dealt with nine out of its 35 chapters by the end of December 2016. Finally, amongst the key chapters left for Serbia to solve, are its normalisation of relations with Kosovo and the establishment and strengthening of the rule of law.


Alternatively, in relation to the potential candidates, the EU is providing extensive support to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, both of which showed progress in meeting the requirements of candidacy (De Munter, 2017). Moreover, in March 2017 the EU’s support of the Western Balkan states in their building of closer regional ties was reinforced by the High Representative Federica Mogherini during her visit to the Balkans (European Union External Action, 2017). Nonetheless, there are still tensions and political instability in the region; most notably, until June 2017, The Former Republic of Macedonia spent months in political unrest and without a government, whilst the Serbians presently disagree with their new President Aleksandar Vučić despite his popular win in the national elections (for regular updates on the region’s affairs, please see the EU Foreign Policy Research Group’s monthly overviews).



Problems and obstacles for the EU integration of the region


Furthermore, the EU political play is also causing impediments in many Balkan states’ ascension to the EU. Firstly, by March 2017, five EU Member States (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain) and two candidate states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia) still did not recognise Kosovo’s independence (de Munter, 2017).


Secondly, there has been a long-term issue between Greece and The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in relation to the name of ‘Macedonia’. This is due to the fact that Greece fears that allowing the use of the name by the Balkan state will give rise to a territorial claim over its own northern region called Macedonia. Consequently, it argues that the name cannot be monopolised by one single state (BBC 2014).


Lastly, in 2016 Croatia refused to endorse the Commission’s opinion that Serbia was ready to negotiate on its accession chapter, hereby vetoing its membership. This was based on concerns regarding the rule of law, the treatment of Serbia’s Croatian minority, the Serbian cooperation with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Serbian courts’ universal jurisdiction, including war crimes committed across other territories of former Yugoslavia (Anastasjevic, 2016). This issue, however, appears to have been resolved with a promise that the concerns would be addressed in the EU draft common position during the negotiations; with this promise, Croatia lifted its refusal to endorse Serbia (Rettman, 2016).



EU avoiding previous mistakes?


It is arguable that in its policies regarding the Western Balkans, the EU wishes to repeat its transition of the former Communist Central and Eastern European states which, to a certain extent, are described as successful examples of transition. This is because it is considered that the EU's influence on states such as Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania tipped the scale from communism towards democracy and integration.


Nevertheless, perhaps the balance has not been tipped enough in favour of democracy: Romania and Bulgaria’s strengthening of the rule of law regarding corruption and by-passing legal norms is still a work of progress even ten years after their ascension. Moreover, Romania is still struggling to achieve justice for the victims of the Communist regime, while in the context of the Western Balkans the prosecution of war criminals is essential for the establishment of the rule of law. Consequently, this is perhaps why the EU added an additional criterion to the Western Balkan states’ memberships.


The Union finally recognised that its leverage can be greater before the ascension rather than after. This is as shown by the slow transitional progress of both Bulgaria and Romania in dealing with corruption after they received their membership, which pushed the EU to sanction both of them in 2010 with the postponement of their ascension to the Schengen area. (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2011). Consequently, it would potentially be more efficient for the EU to help the Western Balkans solve their rule of law issues prior to offering them EU membership rather than after as the promise of a full membership can further incentivise their cooperation.





Apart from Turkey not being situated in the Western Balkans, its candidacy to the EU also has a different history to the states discussed above. Having applied for EC membership as early as 1959 and EU membership in 1987, Turkey was declared a candidate in 1999 and negotiations were started in 2005. Its road to accession, however, is rocky and it is predicted to remain so for the foreseeable future due to a variety of reasons.



EU and Turkey – rocky relations


Eight negotiation chapters are overall blocked and the EU has agreed not to provisionally close any chapters until Turkey will apply to Cyprus the Additional Protocol to the Ankara Association Agreement of 23 November 1970 that establishes inter alia freedom of goods and the elimination of the customs union. In practice, this would force Turkey to open its airports and its ports to Greek-Cypriots, an issue on which the state is not prepared to negotiate on. The problem, nonetheless, lies deeper: Cyprus is also not in favour of negotiating with Turkey, especially in relation to the reunification of the two communities (Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots) on the Cypriot island. With many individual EU Member States opposing the beginning of new chapters due to the Turkish refusal to badge on the Additional Protocol, the EU attempted a ‘positive agenda’ to revitalise its bilateral relations in 2012, which led to new chapters being opened in 2013, 2015 and 2016. In March 2016 both the EU and Turkey reinforced their commitment to stemming the flow of irregular migrants to the EU according to their joint action plan, with the hope of revitalising the membership process (de Munter, 2017).


Nonetheless, due to the consequences of the 2016 attempted coup on the rule of law in Turkey which saw 130,000 state employees fired, 75,000 people detained, and a media crackdown, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on 24 November 2016 to temporarily freeze the accession talks with Turkey. The Turkish government, including the Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, criticised the EU as freezing itself out of constructive dialogues, a view also supported by Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt who described the decision as a short-term approach, and by High Representative Federica Mogherini who predicted a ‘lose-lose scenario’ (Rankin and Shaheen, 2016). The European Parliament decision had the support of 471 votes, and was opposed by 37; however, the 107 abstentions could potentially show the fragile situation between the Union and Turkey.


Moreover, rumours appeared that Turkish President Erdoğan could hold a referendum on EU accession, potentially dismissing decades of negotiations. Taking into account April 2017’s referendum which expanded Erdoğan’s presidential powers, perhaps the EU should be worried. Nonetheless, the EU leaders maintain their strong stance against the direction into which Turkey is heading, with Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn arguing that it is time to re-assess and change the EU’s relationship with Turkey, and many MEPs refusing to see Turkey as a full EU member. Nevertheless, while most EU politicians agreed that its candidacy should be put on hold, there is a consensus that it should not be terminated in order to allow Turkish citizens the opportunity of fundamental rights and freedoms (Gotev, 2017). However, with Erdoğan’s potential support for the reintroduction of the death penalty in Turkey, even the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker affirmed that, while presently accession negotiations should not be stopped, the restoration of the death penalty would put a clear end to Turkey’s candidacy (Reuters, 2017).



Turkey – difficult candidate


Generally, it is important for the EU to think on a long-term basis in relation to Turkey’s EU membership. In more than ten years of candidacy, the state has not made extensive progress to comply with the membership requirements, and it is arguable that perhaps it has even gone the opposite way, especially in the past year with the presidency of Erdoğan. While membership could be eliminated as an option, the EU could offer Turkey a pragmatic partnership status instead. This could consequently prove that EU candidacy does not guarantee membership, but rather it acts as an assessment of progress on the way to accession.


It should not be forgotten, however, that Turkey’s support and cooperation is needed in areas such as migration and Syria, and losing its support could have devastating consequences in terms of the migration flow into Europe and foreign policy. An initial deal in March 2016 between the EU and Turkey saw an agreement from Turkey to reduce the flow of migrants coming into Europe, and a promise from the EU to speed up negotiations on Turkey’s accession and to decrease visa restrictions for Turks coming to the EU. In November 2016, the EU broke their part of the deal by freezing the membership assessment, which angered the Turkish government. Consequently, the situation is extensively fragile and tense; however, EU sending Turkey funds in May 2017 to accommodate and provide for the 2.9 million Syrian refugees it hosts, shows that perhaps the situation is not as dire as originally thought (Euractiv, 2017; for regular updates on Turkey - EU foreign affairs, please see the EU Foreign Policy Research Group’s monthly overviews).



The future of EU enlargement


Overall, the EU’s future expansion is presently unclear due to a number of factors. Firstly, the current situation within the EU is not very stable. While the clock for Brexit is ticking down and the negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU are about to begin, the UK is presently still a full member of the Union with rights and obligations. It is unclear yet what effect Brexit can have on the candidacies of future EU members, whether they would strengthen or weaken their desire for full accession.


Nonetheless, Brexit, coupled with the migration issues faced by Europe, a fluctuating Eurozone, and the rise of right-wing politics across its Member States, could potentially weaken the status and power of the EU and lead to the deterioration of the worth of a full EU membership. On the other hand, EU leaders continue to promote its strength “as a force for peace, a provider of security, and a staunch supporter of international cooperation and multilateralism” (Mogherini, 2016).



However, with the current developments in Turkey which led to the freezing of its candidacy, and potential similar developments spreading across the Western Balkan states (Schulz, 2017) it is currently uncertain if the EU’s force will remain as strong, whether in 27 Member States format or as a larger union with new full members. With the rising tensions and the fragile situations surrounding this aspect of foreign policy, it is not surprising that EU enlargement is a recipe encompassing all states of affairs: ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966). 



Ioana is currently an intern with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, in the Freedoms and Justice department. She is a recent LL.M graduate in International Law and she is specialised in international criminal law and human rights. Her research interests include transitional justice, fundamental rights, especially rights of victims and prisoners, EU law and policy, and international relations. She enjoys travelling, experiencing new cultures and learning new languages.






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