More countries are likely to join the EU, but the process will extend to the end of the decade. At present, the EU lacks real strategic interests in incorporating most of the current candidates. Furthermore, political fragmentation within the EU tempers any desire to grow further, writes Stratfor.
Stratfor is a Texas-based, global intelligence company. A longer version of the op-ed can be found here.
"The EU will continue to expand its membership, albeit more slowly and selectively. EU accession remains an important objective for several countries, but obstacles will complicate their respective membership bids, as will the fact that the bloc currently has little need to incorporate them. In any case, political fragmentation has curbed much of the bloc's desire to enlarge further.
Since its inception in 1957 as the European Economic Community, the EU has grown from six members to 27 members, and more are on the way. Croatia's formal accession is slated for July, and Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey have been granted candidacy status.
EU enlargement has always been prompted by geopolitics. The first stage of growth took place in the mid-1970s, when the European Economic Community incorporated Ireland, Denmark and, most important, the United Kingdom, which has long been seen as the link between continental Europe and the United States.
The second stage occurred in the mid-1980s, during which the bloc added Spain, Portugal and Greece. The third stage was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. In this stage, Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the newly formed EU.
But the most ambitious stage took place between 2004 and 2007, when the bloc nearly doubled its membership. Most of the new members were Baltic or Central and Eastern European states. The bloc wanted to create a bulwark against Russia, surround the Balkans and access Balkan markets.
Historically, the Balkans were under the influence of larger states or empires. Since the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, most of these countries have aspired to become EU and NATO members. They regard the EU as the gateway to the West, providing higher trade possibilities, potential foreign investment and EU financial assistance.
The EU believes that its expansion into the Balkans would bring political stability and economic opportunities to the region.
Despite a history of animosity with its neighbors, Serbia recently has ??gained favor with the EU. It has delivered war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal and has resumed talks to normalize relations with Kosovo. Serbia was granted EU candidacy status in 2012.
Relations with Kosovo seriously impede Serbia's EU membership bid. The EU requires that Belgrade normalise its relations with Pristina, but Serbia has yet to even recognise Kosovo's independence.
However, relations improved between Serbia and Kosovo in 2012. They made several agreements and improved border management. The two sides will soon try to normalize ties regarding the status of Serbs living in northern Kosovo. However, strong nationalist feelings in both countries have undermined progress in these negotiations.
Macedonia was granted candidacy status in 2005 – a year after it applied – but several issues could hinder its accession.
Tensions exist between the majority ethnic Macedonians and minority ethnic Albanians. Constant partisan infighting has prevented the country from implementing economic and institutional reforms.
The EU is also concerned about the status of the rule of law, including corruption and institutional irregularities.
The third obstacle is diplomatic disputes. Greece, a NATO and EU member, believes that Macedonia could claim Greek territories of the same name, and thus Athens opposes Macedonia's inclusion.
In addition, Bulgaria has threatened to block Macedonia's EU accession due to Bulgarian discrimination.
In December, the EU Council said accession negotiations could start by mid-2013, but Macedonia is unlikely to become a member before 2020.
Montenegro applied for EU membership in 2008, two years after its independence. Accession negotiations formally began in June 2012, and Podgorica has since closed the first of Montenegro's 35 negotiation chapters.
While it does not experience the same levels of interethnic violence as its neighbors, some obstacles to accession remain, including corruption and organised crime.
The European Commission said Montenegro has to make additional efforts to establish transparency and strengthen judicial accountability. The Commission also said corruption, which hinders law enforcement investigations of organized crime, remains widespread.
Albania and Kosovo
Albania applied for EU membership in 2009, but the bloc has refused to grant it candidate status until it makes more institutional reforms and holds transparent parliamentary elections in 2013.
Kosovo's situation is more complex. The political future of Kosovo is linked to the status of its negotiations with Serbia, but at any rate, five members of the EU do not recognize Kosovo's independence.
Iceland has maintained close relations with the EU. It is a member of the European Economic Area and of the Schengen zone. In 2010, the EU granted Iceland official candidate status.
However, major issues, including fishing quotas, have slowed Iceland's membership bid. The fisheries industry accounts for approximately 25 percent of Iceland's GDP. Reykjavik fears that EU membership would reallocate that revenue.
Moreover, surveys conducted in 2012 show that slightly more than half of Iceland's citizens oppose EU membership. The country's main political parties in Iceland likewise are divided on the matter. Even if negotiations progress, Iceland's membership in the EU will have to be ratified by Icelanders through a referendum.
Turkey became a NATO member in 1952, an associate European Economic Community member in 1963 and a founding member of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1973. It signed a customs union agreement with the EU in 1995 and was granted candidacy status in 1999.
But things began to change in the early 2000s. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan redefined Turkish foreign policy, and Turkey slowly ascended as a regional power. Meanwhile, relations cooled between Brussels and Ankara.
The EU is concerned that Turkey's accession would unbalance the bloc. Turkey's population (75 million people) and high fertility rates could give it substantial weight in EU decision-making.
Some countries fear that Turkey's accession would entail high immigration. Importantly, Greece and Cyprus maintain territorial disputes with Turkey.
However, Turkey and the EU have strong economic relations. They also share common energy diversification needs and are both interested in a balance of power in the Middle East.
Turkey's formal accession to the EU remains unlikely. But as Europe's political and economic weight declines and Turkey becomes more powerful, cooperation on economic and political issues will likely remain strong.
Tempered desire for expansion
More countries are likely to join the EU, but the process will extend to the end of the decade. At present, the EU lacks real strategic interests in incorporating most of the current candidates. Furthermore, political fragmentation within the EU tempers any desire to grow further.
The EU will become more selective as it incorporates new members, even as the financial crisis will make the EU somewhat less attractive to potential members, which will be reluctant to implement structural reforms if they believe the costs outweigh the benefits of membership."