This year marks the 11th anniversary of the big “Eastern enlargement” when 10 countries from Central and Eastern Europe, who have in common an undemocratic past, become part of the EU. The “Big Bang” enlargement has been followed by two smaller ones, with the last in 2013, when Croatia joined. After the 2004 enlargement, some were talking about an “enlargement fatigue”, which is apparently still persisting. Even if there are still some countries in the waiting room, the enlargement is on hold for at least the next 5 years. Can this be considered still as a simpton of the “fatigue” or an actual stop?
WHAT DOES THE EU ENLARGEMENT ACTUALLY MEANS?
The enlargement itself represents the final part of a process under which the country “prepares” itself for EU membership. However, this process can take quite a long time. In the case of Slovenia it lasted 8 years – the application for membership was made on 10 June 1996, while the real negotiations started on 31 March 1998 and were completed on 13 December 2002.
The negotiations may begin when the country obtains the candidate status, which happens when the Commission decides that the country is ready. For this the country must satisfy the so called “Copenhagen criteria” – functioning and stable institutions that guarantee the respect of human rights and the rule of law, a functioning market economy and the ability to implement EU policies. Besides the country, the EU too has to be ready to accept a new member. In the case of Western Balkan countries, the EU has decided to put additional criteria, especially in connection with regional cooperation and the development of good relations among neighbours.
Before the start of the negotiations, the European Commission prepares an overview of the country’s readiness to meet the policy requisites. The negotiations are divided into 35 chapters that represent the main EU policies. The content of the chapters themselves is non negotiable, as the negotiations concern the timeline of the implementation of the policy by the country itself into its national legislation.
Once the candidate country convinces all the EU states and the Commission that it will be able to implement the legislation, the negotiations are concluded. The candidate country and all the Member States sign the Accession Treaty, which specifies the conditions of the membership. To enter into force, the treaty has to be ratified by all the parties concerned (the candidate and the all the members). In the meantime the candidate country obtains the status of acceding country. This allows it to participate as an observer in the work of the institutions without, however, any decisional power (it can just provide opinions).
WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION IN THE WAITING ROOM?
Six (or five, if we don’t count Iceland, that decided to end the negotiations) countries have currently the candidate status. Among the five, three already started with negotiations – Turkey, Montenegro and Serbia. The other two – Albania and Macedonia – are still waiting for their start. Besides the official candidates, there are currently two countries waiting to enter into the waiting room – Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, who have the status of potential candidates.
The progress of the ex-Yugoslav countries was discussed last week by the European Parliament in Strasbourg. In its assessment of the progress made, the Parliament highlights the problems in ensuring the respect for the rule of law, problems with the fight against corruption and various forms of discrimination, the high polarization in the political sphere and the slow progress in achieving significant structural reforms. MEPs particularly praised Montenegro, who is currently the only country from the region that already opened and closed certain chapters. In the case of Macedonia the Parliament stressed for the ninth time the Council to start with negotiations. The beginning is still blocked, mainly due to the dispute over the country’s name with Greece.
ICELAND LEAVES THE WAITING ROOM
Unlike the countries of South Eastern Europe, Iceland last week officially decided not to join the EU. This island nation officially notified to the Latvian Presidency its intention to stop the accession negotiations. Iceland officially applied for membership in 2009, when it faced a severe financial crisis and the then government saw in EU membership a possibility to improve the situation and safety. The negotiations officially began in 2010.
At the beginning of the negotiations it was often said that these negotiations could be quite fast, as Iceland, who is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), already adopted quite a few EU legislation. Moreover, at the moment of the freeze of the negotiations in 2013, the country opened already 27 and temporarily closed 11 chapters. The most problems were foreseen for the chapters regarding fisheries, fiscal policy and financial services.
SOME WANTS TO ENTER, OTHERS DON’T
The Icelandic case may raise questions why a country would need to join the EU if it still can enjoy its benefits outside of it. In the case of Iceland, this is possible because the country is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and, as such, part of the EEA. This “area” was founded in 1994 and allows EFTA countries which are not members of the EU to access to the Single European Market, the basic four freedoms of the EU and to participate in some of the EU programmes (such as Erasmus+, Horizon 2020).
However, this access is not exactly cheap, since these countries had to allow that EU legislation from different policy fields (including legislation in the field of environment, social policy, business law, consumer protection, and others) is implemented in these countries. With a very important difference – the countries can’t participate in the decision process to adopt this legislation, as they don’t have their representatives in the EU institutions. In addition, they can’t receive funds from the European Structural Funds (although they alone finance some programmes to reduce social and economic disparities within Europe).
However, the Western Balkan countries do not have this option, since none of them is an EFTA member, Therefore, if they want to have access to the Single Market and to EE programmes, they have to become members. Theoretically, they could also become part of the EFTA and through it part of the EEA. However, the membership in EFTA alone doesn’t mean automatic membership in the EEA (like Switzerland), nor doesn’t the membership in the EU (like Croatia). The accession has to be agreed by all the Member States.
WHICH ONE WILL BE THE 29th MEMBER?
To know how and when the EU will enlarge itself, we will need to wait. In any case, the current candidates need to do still a lot. We can however say that the “Copenhagen criteria” are not met by either side – nor the candidates, nor the EU are not prepared. The enlargement fatigue, even after 11 years, still persists.
To keep growing and still represent the best model of integration between sovereign states, the EU should first clean itself. The crisis that should be over now (I am still sceptic about this), left very much unsolved questions and rivalries, that countries need to resolve among them. Only after that it will be able to enlarge itself. We can say, that the enlargement is in the Union’s DNA, that now has to wait for the right time to continue.