Europe not getting any bigger, for now

It’s almost six and a half years since the last time the European Union admitted a new member – Croatia, in 2013, its 28th.

That’s by no means unprecedented. The Union was stable at 15 members for more than nine years, and well before that the original six members were on their own for even longer. Nonetheless, with a dozen countries still at various stages in the queue, the present delay requires some explanation.

Let’s recap a bit. There are seven countries whose in-principle eligibility for EU membership is (or at least should be) uncontroversial. Three of them are western, developed countries: Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. All have equivocated about membership in the past, but are currently not pursuing it.

The other four, like Croatia, are in the western Balkans: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. All have applied for membership and have been recognised as candidate countries for between five and 14 years. Accession negotiations began with Montenegro in 2012 and Serbia in 2014.

It’s a long and complicated process. But it needn’t be quite this long or complicated. It took Croatia just over ten years from application to admission. Bulgaria, in the previous round of expansion, took eleven years. (Finland, by contrast, took less than five.) Montenegro, however, has already been at it for eleven, and is being told that it could take another five or six years yet.

Albania and North Macedonia are in an even worse position. Although they applied in 2009 and 2004 respectively, the EU has so far refused to even begin accession talks, despite a recommendation to that effect by the European Commission three years ago. Last month the Union’s heads of government again blocked the idea.

Now French president Emmanuel Macron has produced a paper (actually, a non-paper) proposing reform of the accession process. It’s not a bad proposal, but it fails to disguise the fact that its main purpose is to serve as justification for Macron’s role in blocking progress for the western Balkan countries.

Yes, the existing process is unwieldy and could do with reform (as can be said for much of the EU). Yes, it’s a good idea to open talks on broad topic areas sequentially rather than all at once, so candidate countries can participate in some EU activities as different stages are completed. Yes, progress should be based on “easily and objectively verifiable indicators” and allow for “increased financial support” to candidate countries.

But this discussion cannot take place in a vacuum. The political reality is that what the EU needs is ways to speed the process up, not excuses to slow it down.

The transformation of eastern Europe in the last 30 years has had, as one of its key ingredients, the prospect and then (for some) the reality of EU membership. Joining the EU has been valued both for its own sake and as a symbol of these countries’ readmission to the European mainstream after decades under Communism.

That is unquestionably true for the four western Balkan candidates. They have undertaken many reforms that are beneficial in their own right but that might have been much more drawn-out if the incentive of EU membership had not been there to spur them on. To dampen that incentive is not just a breach of faith, it is pragmatically foolish.

No-one pretends that Albania and the rest are yet up to the standards of western Europe in terms of the quality and stability of their institutions. But they have made great advances, and a strategy that fails to reward them is surely not the best way to encourage further progress.

That would be true even if there was no competing interest at stake. But in fact the EU’s rivals, particularly Russia and China, are eyeing the Balkans with great interest and are ready to pick up the ball if the EU drops it. And they, of course, will not insist on respect for democracy or the rule of law as a condition of aid and investment.

Technically, there is a fifth candidate country in south-eastern Europe: Turkey, which applied for membership way back in 1987, was recognised as a candidate in 1999 and began accession talks in 2005.

But those talks have been frozen since 2016 and there is no prospect of them resuming in the foreseeable future. Turkey’s authoritarian turn has made membership impossible while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains in power. Different people, however, draw different lessons from this.

For Macron and those who support him, the Turkish example shows the need for caution and scepticism when dealing with the Balkans. For the supporters of expansion, it shows that foot-dragging on the issue, especially when it can be seen as an expression of prejudice, risks making matters worse.

By failing to bring Turkey within the tent earlier, did the EU miss an opportunity, or did it dodge a bullet? Like many hypotheticals of history, there is no sure answer.

Perhaps Turkey really was too big and exotic for the EU to swallow. But there can be no such excuse for the other candidate countries; even if all of them joined at once, they would represent an increase of only about three per cent in the EU’s population. If they follow Erdoğan in the shift away from European values, the EU will have only itself to blame.

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