As the European Commission unveiled its yearly ‘progress reports’ on EU candidate countries yesterday (16 October), an Austrian think-tank revealed that domestic public support for enlargement had hit rock bottom, the EurActiv network reports.

In its annual set of progress reports, the European Commission for the second time recommends granting EU candidate status to Albania and, for the fifth time in a row, to opening accession negotiations with Macedonia (see background).

The Commission also assesses progress made elsewhere in the Western Balkans and in Turkey over the past year. Given the Icelandic government's decision to put accession negotiations on hold, a simplified report on Iceland takes stock of the current state of its alignment with the EU.

Speaking in Parliament, Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle for the first time outlined five “fundamentals" underpinning the enlargement process: the rule of law, strengthening economic governance, support for democratic institutions, respect for fundamental rights and ties between the enlargement countries and EU member states.

The last 'fundamental' refers to improved relations between Macedonia and its two troublesome neighbours – Greece and Bulgaria. The small EU hopeful has so far been unable to solve its “name dispute” with Greece. Athens also considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history, as does Bulgaria, where its medieval and more recent history is concerned.

Skopje still keeps a document on its Foreign Ministry website claiming that 750,000 Macedonians are currently living in Bulgaria and 700,000 in Greece.

Talks on an agreement to ensure that Skopje has no territorial or other claims to Bulgaria have made no progress, Bulgarian diplomats told EurActiv.

Accession talks at a standstill

Pressed by EurActiv, the European Commission said that it still had a lot of work to do on enlargement matters and dismissed suggestions that it was planning to cut staff in its Enlargement directorate, due to declining activity in this policy area.

In reality however, accession talks with most applicant countries have ground to an almost complete standstill.

Some progress has been made with tiny Montenegro, with whom the Commission opened and closed two negotiation chapters recently. And more chapters are in process of being opened, EurActiv learned.

But talks have stopped with most others, especially Turkey which was pinned down in the Commission report for its troubled relations with Cyprus, and lack of progress on human and minority rights as well as freedom of expression.

Of the 35 negotiation chapters with Turkey, so far only one, on science and research, has been provisionally closed. Thirteen chapters are open, but the EU has suspended the opening of eight chapters over Turkey's failure to implement the Ankara Protocol, which states that access should be granted and ports opened to products coming from the Republic of Cyprus.

The opening of 11 additional chapters has been blocked by France and the Republic of Cyprus, amounting to 19 blocked chapters in total.

In June 2013 EU countries agreed to open the negotiating chapter 22 on regional policy and coordination of structural instruments, with the common position subject to confirmation by EU ministers after the presentation of the Commission’s progress report.

Talks are expected to open with Serbia, in January 2014 at the very latest. The Commission made this decision after Belgrade reached a certain degree of normalisation of relations with its former province Kosovo. Although Kosovo is not recognised by all EU member countries, it has benefitted from a policy of EU rapprochement similar to the pre-accession process.

Low degree of support for enlargement

The Austrian Society for European Policy (ÖGfE) unveiled a survey of Austrian public opinion regarding potential membership of individual candidate countries.

As it turns out, Iceland is the only country whose membership is supported by a majority of respondents (55%) – the same candidate country that recently froze its accession ambitions.

The remaining seven EU hopefuls are viewed with scepticism. “Countries in the Western Balkans, which are the most relevant for Austria, are met with particularly low support,” said Paul Schmidt, ÖGfE Secretary General.

According to the survey, approval for the accession of South East European countries is at very low level, compared to previous Eurobarometer polls. Of these, Macedonia received the "highest" level of acceptance at merely 28%. Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina were each approved by 26%. Close to one fourth of Austrians surveyed (24%) said they would welcome Serbia into the EU, while only one in five supported Albania (20%) and Kosovo (19%) joining. Turkey got the worst results, with only 15% of respondents being in favour to its EU membership.

‘Signs point toward deepening’

Schmidt said that the respondents favoured the deepening of the EU, rather than enlargement. Indeed, 86% of those surveyed responded that a deepening of cooperation among EU member states is either “very important” (48%) or “important” (38%). Conversely, only around one-fourth see EU enlargement as either “very important” (8%) or “important” (16%). Three-fourths chose to describe it as either “less important” (42%) or “not important at all” (32%).

Apart from these clear results, Austrians are divided on whether more decisions in the EU should be taken at the EU level (45%) or at the national level (48%).

“Although the domestic economy is currently gaining from enlargement, thereby strengthening political stability in the region – as far as Austrian priorities are concerned, the EU should consolidate and solve its internal problems,” Schmidt explains.