A new study looking into the practical, legal and technical aspects of further EU expansion has concluded that only one country, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, could meet the criteria for joining the bloc before 2023.
Serbia, currently touted as the frontrunner together with the tiny coastal republic of Montenegro, would only manage to fully comply with EU law in the mid-2030s, and the same goes for Turkey, according to the Forecasting Candidate Status study, written by Professor Tina Freyburg of the University of St Gallen and Tobias Böhmelt from the University of Essex.
Further enlargement of the EU during the 2014-2019 mandate of Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission has been ruled out but the question of who might join the bloc next remains an interesting debate, even though there is little real appetite for bloc’s further expansion.
The list of countries still vying for EU membership includes official candidates Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey, and EU hopefuls Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.
The study has considered how likely it is that five of those candidate countries would join the EU before 2050, based on previous accession benchmarks used during the 2004 big-bang enlargement.
EU accession is only possible when candidate countries meet a comprehensive list of criteria and when they have implemented EU law, known as the acquis, into their own national legislation. This includes everything from judicial reform to transport and energy policy.
The study said Macedonia is the only country likely to meet the benchmarks before 2023, while Serbia and Turkey would only manage to fully comply with EU law in the mid-2030s.
Turkey’s continued membership bid is the most controversial, particularly in light of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on opposition forces following the failed coup attempt last year.
Member states and European lawmakers have made high-profile calls on the EU to suspend or even scrap Turkey’s bid, which Ankara formally launched in 1987.
The situation is made significantly more delicate by Brussels’ reliance on Ankara to enforce the refugee deal, which, in addition to factors like Brexit and rising populism, means the appetite for EU expansion has, arguably, never been lower.
Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina might not be in a position to meet the criteria on EU accession before 2050, which the study uses as evidence to show that political ambitions in those countries might outweigh the reality of the situation.
Professor Freyburg emphasises that her work completely excludes the political dimension of the issue, including the European Commission’s moratorium on enlargement, instability in Turkey and the political uncertainty in countries like Bosnia, or the fact that Macedonia’s progress is blocked by Greece because of a 20-year old name dispute.
The study did not include Kosovo or Montenegro in its predictions, saying there is a lack of sufficient data to make a worthwhile estimate of accession prospects for either country. Additionally, Kosovo is still not recognised by five EU member states so its membership is currently a moot point.
However, Freyburg told EURACTIV.com that Montenegro, which only became independent from Serbia in 2006, “possesses characteristics comparable to Macedonia, which might make their future levels of compliance with EU law comparable as well”.
Montenegro’s prospects of successful accession are often hailed in Brussels as the most promising. Although some factors like a border dispute with Kosovo continue, its barriers to EU membership are less significant than other candidates.
Freyburg added that “Montenegro might reasonably be seen as being among the first potential next member states” but warned that the political willingness of the Montenegrin government and vetoes by other member states are outside the control of the study.
It concluded that the results appear to lower EU enlargement expectations and that the findings might even “paint a ‘too optimistic’ picture and the actual future compliance levels […] could well be even weaker than suggested”.
The study also highlighted that enlargement is most often driven by candidate country action and progress, rather than an “expansionist” Brussels policy. It added that EU concerns about increased membership jeopardising a “deepening of the European institutions” are non-technical barriers that prospective members must contend with.
The latest addition to the EU is Croatia, which formally joined the bloc in 2013. It is yet to join Schengen or the eurozone but in his 2017 State of the Union address, Jean-Claude Juncker called on Croatia to be admitted to the former as soon as it meets all the relevant criteria.
Last week, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković announced that he is hopeful his country will join the eurozone within seven to eight years time.