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12/17/16

EU: The race for EU membership – with 10 countries still trying to get in-the gate is temporarily closed

Politico reports that the United Kingdom might be trying to check out of the European Union, but there are at least 10 countries keen to be in. There’s a problem though: The EU’s golden age of expansion is over.

Sorry No More Room At The Inn
While national governments would like to ensure political stability in the EU’s neighborhood, they have no appetite to let those countries join before 2025. For some countries, such as Turkey, there’s almost no chance of ever joining. The European Parliament and countries such as Austria are already trying to suspend membership negotiations with Turkey.

“I won’t set a speed limit on the road to Europe,” said Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner responsible for EU enlargement, who insisted “Each candidate defines speed of joining via [its] own merit.”

At the same time, Hahn told a Western Balkans policy summit hosted by Friends of Europe on December 7, that there is a majority against EU enlargement in most EU countries. Instead of pushing EU national governments before they are ready Hahn suggested candidate countries focus on economic development and anti-corruption efforts.

Shada Islam, Europe director at Friends of Europe, is pessimistic. “I think we need to stop pretending and accept that there will be no new enlargement for many years — and that all these countries have a long way to go before they meet any of the key membership criteria,” Islam said, adding that given six to 10 years of continuous effort, the six Balkan nations may have a chance at membership.

The countries lining up for EU membership are becoming restless. “Enlargement is not high on the EU’s agenda and we know it,” said Natalie Sabanadze, Georgia’s ambassador to the EU.

Prior to the closed-door policy of the Juncker Commission, leaders in countries wanting to join the EU could promise to voters that EU membership would be forthcoming in exchange for sometimes difficult institutional and policy reforms. Today, even if a country meets all of the EU’s requirements it may be blocked for political reasons.

Western Balkans countries see themselves as rooted in Europe and warn that the EU will hurt itself if it fails to draw them close. Tanja Miščevič, Serbia’s chief membership negotiator, said “The Schengen system cannot function, and energy union cannot be completed, without the Western Balkan countries.”

Ditmir Bushati, Albania’s foreign minister, said that while it is clear “No one will be able to join EU in foreseeable future” it would be dangerous to allow Russia to fill a vacuum in his region.

If anyone can become a surprise front-runner in the membership race it is Albania, already a NATO member and mostly free from the complications of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

All other prospective EU members in the Western Balkans suffer fundamental complications. For Macedonia, it’s as simple as Greece refusing to even recognize its name. Allowing Montenegro and Kosovo to join without Serbia alongside them could create a security risk for both countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the worst position of all and may hold these countries back if the EU insists they join in bloc formation.

“I won’t set a speed limit on the road to Europe,” said Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner responsible for EU enlargement, who insisted “Each candidate defines speed of joining via [its] own merit.”

At the same time, Hahn told a Western Balkans policy summit hosted by Friends of Europe on December 7, that there is a majority against EU enlargement in most EU countries. Instead of pushing EU national governments before they are ready Hahn suggested candidate countries focus on economic development and anti-corruption efforts.

Shada Islam, Europe director at Friends of Europe, is pessimistic. “I think we need to stop pretending and accept that there will be no new enlargement for many years — and that all these countries have a long way to go before they meet any of the key membership criteria,” Islam said, adding that given six to 10 years of continuous effort, the six Balkan nations may have a chance at membership.

    “Georgia is stubbornly pursuing [the] European and Euro-Atlantic course despite difficulties and costs involved” — Natalie Sabanadze, the Georgian ambassador

The countries lining up for EU membership are becoming restless. “Enlargement is not high on the EU’s agenda and we know it,” said Natalie Sabanadze, Georgia’s ambassador to the EU.

Prior to the closed-door policy of the Juncker Commission, leaders in countries wanting to join the EU could promise to voters that EU membership would be forthcoming in exchange for sometimes difficult institutional and policy reforms. Today, even if a country meets all of the EU’s requirements it may be blocked for political reasons.

Western Balkans countries see themselves as rooted in Europe and warn that the EU will hurt itself if it fails to draw them close. Tanja Miščevič, Serbia’s chief membership negotiator, said “The Schengen system cannot function, and energy union cannot be completed, without the Western Balkan countries.”

Ditmir Bushati, Albania’s foreign minister, said that while it is clear “No one will be able to join EU in foreseeable future” it would be dangerous to allow Russia to fill a vacuum in his region.

If anyone can become a surprise front-runner in the membership race it is Albania, already a NATO member and mostly free from the complications of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

All other prospective EU members in the Western Balkans suffer fundamental complications. For Macedonia, it’s as simple as Greece refusing to even recognize its name. Allowing Montenegro and Kosovo to join without Serbia alongside them could create a security risk for both countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the worst position of all and may hold these countries back if the EU insists they join in bloc formation.

Don’t expect the European Commission to give firm indications about any of this in 2017: The EU promises a policy update only in spring 2018.

Several EU officials POLITICO spoke to suggested that with Brexit and a new budget to negotiate and implement from 2020-2026, the EU simply doesn’t have room on its plate until 2027 to consider new members.

Goran Svilanović, a former Serbian foreign minister, and now head of the Regional Cooperation Council, said he is “very frustrated” by this approach and says that it would be better to “start negotiating. Keep us busy. Help us be successful.”

No country has even turned around a membership application in less than five years (Finland is the current record holder), and for former Warsaw Pact and Yugoslav states, 10-15 years is typical.

If Iceland decided to reapply for EU membership it would immediately shoot to the front of the queue, and if Scotland were to achieve independence, it would not be far behind. The Scottish government is keen. “As part of our response to the EU referendum we are exploring all options to protect Scotland’s relationship with Europe,” a government spokesperson said.

Another potential big member, Ukraine, is realistic about its membership prospects. Given the country’s internal difficulties and the rejection by Dutch voters of the country’s ‘Association Agreement’ with the EU, diplomats say neither it nor the EU are ready for membership. It would in any case be “suicidal” to join the EU while Russia is headed by Vladimir Putin, a senior diplomat told POLITICO.

Natalie Sabanadze, the Georgian ambassador, said Georgia is in a similar position. “Georgia is stubbornly pursuing [the] European and Euro-Atlantic course despite difficulties and costs involved,” she said.

THE CANDIDATES

ALBANIA
Not before 2025
Chances of joining: 80 percent

Pros: Albania has shown an ability to deliver bipartisan reforms and is “the least screwed-up country” in the Western Balkans, according to a diplomat active in the region. The country largely avoided the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, allowing it distance from the problems of other EU applicants in the region.

Cons: Formal negotiations have not yet started, and corruption and organized crime remain serious problems, according to the European Commission. The Commission has also criticized the politicization of Albania’s courts.

MONTENEGRO
Not before 2027
Chances of joining: 90 percent

Pros: Montenegro is the richest Western Balkan nation per capita and has shown ongoing willingness to be part of Western institutions, as illustrated by its nearly completed bid for NATO membership.

Cons: Corruption remains “prevalent” and a “serious problem” according to the Commission, and other political and economic progress is moderate. Allowing Montenegro membership without including Serbia would expose the small nation to a security risk.

SERBIA
Not before 2027
Chances of joining: 80 percent

Pros: Serbia is the biggest of the Western Balkan countries hoping to join the EU, and could be a pro-EU stabilizing force in the region and good neighbor if kept within the EU’s orbit. The Commission has praised Serbia for aligning its legislation with the EU across the board.

Cons: There has been no progress over the past year in fighting corruption. Serbia may also continue refusing to recognize Kosovo unless offered EU membership, which may be tactically clever but breaches the spirit of EU norms.

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Not before 2027, possibly much later
Chances of joining: 50 percent

Pros: This multi-ethnic, multi-religion country could one day be a poster child for the EU’s ability to forge unity from diversity. And if the EU membership process can drag Bosnia up to speed with its neighbors, the prize could be a transformed region.

Cons: Not even the citizens of this country can agree on its basis or continued existence. The country’s constitution will also need a dramatic makeover to meet EU fundamental rights and other standards.

KOSOVO
Not before 2027
Chances of joining: 30 percent

Pros: Kosovo stands to gain strength in numbers and valuable institution-building capacity through the EU membership process, and has already adopted the euro as its currency.

Cons: It is home to a troubled EU rule-of-law mission (which at times has had 2,000 staff members), and due to deep political polarization and ongoing corruption, the journey to EU membership will be a long one. Its sovereignty is not recognized by five EU countries, nor by its biggest neighbor Serbia.

MACEDONIA
Not before 2030
Chances of joining: 50 percent

Pros: The country has fewer internal problems than Bosnia.

Cons: Membership negotiations have been painfully slow. Greece objects to even the name “Macedonia” as it sees this as a threat to the territorial integrity of its own Macedonia region. Macedonia also has numerous disputes with Bulgaria and there are persistent concerns to democracy and rule of law.

GEORGIA
Not before 2035
Chances of joining: 20 percent

Pros: Its government could not be more positive about the EU in its rhetoric. “Georgia has no alternative,” Ambassador Sabanadze told POLITICO. “Georgians want to live in a normal, European-style democracy and they want to safeguard political independence and territorial integrity.”

Cons: Georgia is saddled with its former relationship with Russia, and like Ukraine, faces a frustrated path to EU and NATO membership, independent of the reforms it delivers as part of its membership bid.

MOLDOVA
Not before 2035
Chances of joining: 50 percent

Pros: Moldova has strong ties, a shared language and a similar culture to its neighbor Romania.

Cons: The small country has a breakaway republic (Transnistria) supported by a Russian military presence, and is the poorest of the prospective EU members. A pro-Russian, anti-EU president was elected last month.

UKRAINE
Not before 2035
Chances of joining: 20 percent

Pros: Millions of Ukrainians are so committed to moving into the EU’s political and economic orbit they are willing to protest or shed blood. EU links are a means to achieving stability in the post-Soviet era.

Cons: Even a loose “Association Agreement” proved too much for Dutch voters to accept in 2016, and political fears delayed EU government support for visa-free access for Ukrainians into the Schengen area. Its easter regions are war-torn and Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014.

TURKEY
Possible joining date: Not applicable
Chances of joining: 0 percent

Pros: Inclusion of Turkey into Western institutions, and a sign that moderate Islam is welcome at the world’s top tables.

Cons: Turkey has been drifting toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with fundamental rule of law and freedom of expression problems. Only a small percentage of the country is geographically in Europe. Some EU institutions such as the Parliament, and governments such as Austria’s, want membership talks suspended.

ICELAND
Not before 2022.
Chances of joining: 100 percent if a reapplication is made. 20 percent overall.

Pros: One of the world’s oldest democracies, Iceland boasts a strategic mid-Atlantic location, high education levels and strong cultural links to Europe.

Cons: Iceland has permanent Euroskeptic factions born from concern about protecting the nation’s fishing rights (which would be limited and partially collectivized in the EU), and the fact that it got rich on its own, and doesn’t need the EU to develop.

SCOTLAND
Possible joining date: Five years after applying, meaning not before 2024.
Chances of joining: 90 percent if application is made. 20 percent overall.

Pros: An independent Scotland in the EU would be a major prize for European integrationists. Scotland is EU-enthusiastic, with a government spokesperson calling Brexit: “a democratic outrage” against Scottish voters.

Cons: Anything short of Scotland’s full independence from the U.K. might trigger Spain to block Scotland’s bid to avoid setting a precedent for Catalan nationalists.

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