Need to Know: EU enlargement, a progress report
BY REUBEN BYE
To join the EU a candidate country must first meet the Copenhagen Criteria to prove its institutions and economy are free, robust, and stable enough to survive inside the union and that it is committed to human rights and the aims of the European project in the long term. This can take years or decades of difficult reform. Yet the final step is perhaps the greatest obstacle to future expansion: the approval of every government within the bloc. Many governments, mostly in the north and west, are cautious of expansion diluting liberal consensuses and Western-European dominance. Much of the EU’s ability to function relies on consensus and they fear the rise of more Orbáns, strongman leaders who oversee democratic backsliding and disrupt bloc-wide policy with little accountability. France’s President Macron has sworn that until unanimity is abolished, and the EU undergoes internal reforms, he will veto any future expansions.
Ukrainian governments have described EU accession as a strategic goal since as early as 2005 and efforts to join increased following the Euromaidan protests and 2014 Russian invasion. As part of the Eastern Partnership Initiative, Ukraine has had a close diplomatic and economic relationship with the EU. The 2022 Russian invasion has seen the country double down further on its European ambitions by engaging in media and judicial reforms and increased anti-corruption efforts. In the same year, the European Commission granted Ukraine candidate status, along with Moldova, beginning the formal accession procedures, and it is currently hoped that accession negotiations can open following October’s annual enlargement review. Obviously, the greatest hurdle is the ongoing invasion, as the bloc cannot accept members with violent territorial disputes. When peace does finally arise, the enthusiasm of EU member states towards Ukraine and its own focus on reform leaves it in a strong position for accession.
Serbia’s candidacy was approved in 2012 and 22 of 34 negotiating chapters have been opened, making Serbia’s accession the second most advanced, after Montenegro. Despite this progress, joining the EU remains controversial amongst Serbians, with polling suggesting support for EU accession fluctuates around 50% and is similar to (sometimes less than) that of opposition. It is also widely recognised that Serbia must first recognise the independence of Kosovo, which would be highly unpopular. Many Serbs remain hostile to NATO following its intervention in and support for Kosovo. Western-scepticism has been particularly visible after Belgrade hosted a number of pro-Russian rallies since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to close historic, cultural, and religious ties. Conservative attitudes have also raised concerns that Serbia could support Hungary and Poland in clashes with the EU over human rights. However, Serbia’s President Vučić (who is regularly accused of being a right-wing populist strongman) has emphasised that Serbia’s future is in the EU.
Türkiye was granted candidate status in 1999 and accession negotiations were opened in 2005. Real progress was made, with 16 of 33 negotiating chapters opened. However, this was halted by President Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule undermining human rights and rule of law in the country. This made EU members increasingly concerned about compatibility, leading to the freezing of negotiations in 2019. The Erdogan government has recently shown renewed interest in EU accession, suggesting – to the surprise of many European officials – that its approval of Sweden into NATO may give Türkiye the right to join the EU. In July, the European Parliament rejected a proposal to reopen negotiations, citing democracy and human rights concerns, instead suggesting that Türkiye could affirm its commitment to joining through the concrete results of reforms. Türkiye faces two additional obstacles: its support of Northern Cyprus, and the anti-immigration and Islamophobic fears of European politicians towards the inclusion of a large, Muslim population.
Georgia applied for membership of the EU following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, yet unlike Ukraine and Moldova, it was not granted candidate status. The European Council expressed its readiness to grant the status and recommended Georgia first conduct a series of comprehensive and wide-ranging reforms. These include stronger anti-corruption measures, de-oligarchisation, reducing organised crime, greater protections for journalists (from government interference, and violence), protections for minority groups, strengthening civil society, election and judicial reform, reducing political polarisation, and more. Another challenge is the unrecognised Russian-occupied breakaway states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. These act as a potential flashpoint and undermine Georgian territorial integrity, a prerequisite for EU membership. The ruling Georgian Dream party, despite allegations of corruption and ties to Russia, continues to pursue accession and there remains a pro-European political consensus, but EU membership remains a distant prospect.