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The European Commission on 8 November released the 2023 Enlargement Package - a report on the state of play and progress made by aspiring EU member states towards accession. It lays out the development of reforms to meet EU standards and where priorities lie for now on a country-by-country basis. Negotiations should be started with Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia & Herzegovina and Georgia should be granted candidate status, according to the report. Below you will find an overview per country of the main findings, conclusions and expectations about the EU future.
It is worth first highlighting what the process of EU accession looks like. Initially, a country signs an association treaty with the EU - which is intended as a prelude to membership - to cooperate in areas such as the economy, security and democracy. Before a country can officially become a candidate country, it has to meet all kinds of conditions in the areas of democracy, rule of law, economy. Only then can the country make an official application. Once a country is a candidate country, negotiations can eventually begin on all policy areas to transpose EU rules into national law. History shows that these negotiations can take a very long time.
Albania (candidate country)
Albania signed an association agreement with the EU in 2006, applied for membership in April 2009 and garnered candidate membership in June 2014. Accession negotiations could begin in March 2020 in light of reforms made. The Commission writes that in the area of public administration, reforms still need to be made. When it comes to the judiciary, Albania is at moderate levels. Corruption is still prevalent in public administration and financial life - measures still have too limited an impact. Addressing the culture of impunity is a priority. Fighting organised crime requires stronger measures. Freedom of expression and media independence are still not a given - intimidation and lawsuits against journalists still take place. Too little has been done to protect national minorities. On the positive side, the Albanian economy is ready to "cope with competitive pressures and market forces within the EU". Albania has made progress on monetary policy but independence still needs improvement. Foreign policy is in line with EU common foreign and security policy.
Overall, the EU is satisfied with the reforms undertaken and the commitment to make progress. In most policy areas, Albania is at an average level. The commitment now needs to be converted into an accelerated reform drive.
Bosnia & Herzegovina (candidate country)
Bosnia & Herzegovina signed an association agreement with the EU in 2008, applied for membership in February 2016 and was granted candidate membership in December 2022. In the new report, the commission recommended that the starting accession negotiations, but then a 14 criteria dating back to 2019 must first be met. The EU is not yet satisfied with progress on reforms, stating that BiH has yet to prove itself in many areas. No progress has been made in fighting corruption and progress against organised crime is limited. Bosnian authorities still lack capacity and coordination is too negligent to deal with organised crime. Economically, Bosnia & Herzegovina is not in compliance - reforms are very limited in the areas of the informal economy, unemployment and the business environment. The economy is not yet adjusted to the level of competition and functioning of the EU single market (BiH's own single market also requires reform). The constitution is not yet fully aligned with the European Convention on Human Rights. However, steps have been made on foreign policy - it is more in line with that of the EU despite internal discussions on Russian sanctions. Reforms are also still needed in the areas of democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression and media freedom in line with EU law. The latter two refer mainly to the situation in Republika Srpska, one of the two administrative parts of the country, where the dreaded 'foreign agents' law that restricts civil society work may be introduced.
The advice to start negotiations offers perspective and may provide additional motivation to push through reforms.
Kosovo (potential candidate)
Kosovo has had an association treaty with the EU since 2016 and applied for EU membership in December 2022, last in the region. It has been a "potential candidate" ever since. According to its report, Kosovo should make more efforts to 'normalise' its relationship with Serbia: "Standardisation of relations is an essential prerequisite on both sides' European path and both sides risk losing important opportunities if no progress is made". Disagreements around local elections, number plates and military build-up at the border due to an attack have recently put the relationship under great strain. Independence and efficiency of the judicial system are not yet guaranteed. Implementation of anti-corruption laws and legislation against organised crime has proven limited. Freedom of expression is still a concern, especially in northern Kosovo, where physical threats and hatred are a reality. The economy has proven resilient during the inflation crisis, but is still partly tainted by the informal sector and corruption. Kosovo has made progress in creating a functioning market economy.
Kosovo's EU membership still has a very big bump in the road, namely that all current member states must agree to join. Currently, the five EU member states do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state.
Montenegro (candidate country)
Montenegro signed an association agreement with the EU in 2007, applied for membership in December 2008 and garnered candidate membership in December 2010. Accession negotiations began in June 2012. The Commission writes that serious steps are needed especially in the area of rule of law. Judicial reforms not implemented and slow down negotiations. Corruption and organised crime are both major challenges for Montenegro, and corruption reaches high in state structures. Progress in these areas is very limited. Fundamental rights are largely guaranteed, but society (including media landscape) is very polarised which still leads to much discrimination, towards LGBTIQ+, women and Roma. Economically, Montenegro has made little progress and is moderately prepared for the competitive pressures and market forces of the EU single market. Montenegro is active in regional cooperation and its foreign policy is in line with that of the EU.
Partly due to political instability, Montenegro has recently been able to make few steps in their package of reforms. Interim governments did not prioritise EU issues. The question is whether this will change in the near future given the unstable composition of the new government that was recently inaugurated.
North Macedonia (candidate country)
Northern Macedonia applied for EU membership in March 2004 and obtained this status in December 2005. Accession negotiations did not officially begin until July 2022, due to the Greek blockade demanding name changes and Bulgarian concerns about the Bulgarian minority in northern Macedonia, before the country was allowed to begin the accession process. The Commission is very satisfied with the effort to implement reforms. Some progress has been made in the judiciary but judicial reform lags behind, leaving institutions without the desired capacity. Reforms in public administration are also not yet getting off the ground despite the framework that has been established. No progress has been made in anti-corruption reforms and limited progress in the fight against organised crime. Money laundering and terrorist financing are not effectively tackled by the authorities. Media freedom is almost fully guaranteed, but journalists' working conditions remain challenging. North Macedonia is making progress in creating a functioning market economy, but structural problems in the economy such as the informal sector complicate the investment climate. In terms of legislation, the country has yet to commit to EU single market standards. Foreign policy is already in line with the EU and North Macedonia is well placed in the region.
Northern Macedonia has long been seen as a forerunner in the region when it comes to EU accession. Accordingly, the Commission reports that the negotiations and screening process nevertheless 'smooth' expire. The important parliamentary and presidential elections in 2024 in northern Macedonia will have a significant impact on the country's further progress towards full accession.
Serbia (candidate country)
Serbia signed an association agreement with the EU in 2008, applied for membership in December 2009 and obtained candidate membership in March 2012. Accession negotiations began in January 2014. These negotiations have been delayed due to its open stance towards Russia and rising tensions with Kosovo. According to the Commission, Serbia too little done to normalise relations with Kosovo. Foreign policy is at odds with that of the EU given its warm relationship with Russia and China. Failure to implement Russian sanctions is a thorn in the EU's side. Media independence and freedom of expression are weak - political influence on the media and violence and hatred towards journalists remain a major concern. The Commission welcomes judicial reforms that enhance the independence of the judiciary. Corruption and organised crime remain a major problem. The economy has developed but the state still plays a major role, leaving the private sector underdeveloped.
Serbia is not making things easier for itself by its geopolitical positions. As well as normalisation with Kosovo and adjustment of foreign policy, it stresses that cooperation in the investigation into the September attack in northern Kosovo is required to resume negotiations.
Turkey (candidate country)
Turkey was early, applying for membership to the predecessor of the EU (the EEC) in 1987 and has been a candidate country since December 1999. Accession negotiations began in October 2005 but have stalled since 2018 given Turkey's movement in an autocratic direction. The accession process still exists de jure but is at a complete standstill because Turkey shows no political will to improve democracy, human rights situation, judicial independence and rule of law. The Commission writes that reforms for accession limited are being pursued. There is no progress in the fight against corruption and only limited progress in the fight against organised crime. Legislation is still not in line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Freedom of expression has further declined and media independence is not guaranteed. Turkey's foreign policy is in many cases not in line with that of the EU, think of its support for Hamas, its failure to implement Russian sanctions and its unilateral recognition of northern Cyprus. The economy is developed but monetary policy, for example, is far out of step with the desired situation.
The relationship with Turkey has been mostly 'transactional' for years and prospects of EU accession have been diluted. According to Turkey, the country is being not treated equally with other candidate countries and the EU applies a double standard because of geopolitical considerations. If Turkey is to maintain serious prospects of EU accession, major reforms will have to be made. Regardless, Turkey will remain a key partner for the EU.
Georgia (potential candidate)
Georgia applied for membership in March 2022. Shortly after the application, Georgia was presented with 12 priorities it would have to implement to obtain candidate status. The Commission now recommends that the country be granted candidate status based on the reforms implemented. Namely, nine of the 12 areas are already addressed, which, according to the Commission, makes the country's commitment to reform highlighted. Steps have been taken in fundamental rights and gender equality. Corruption and organised crime are slowly being countered by reforms but these are far from sufficient. The economy is experiencing positive developments and meets the criteria in many areas. However, polarisation in politics limits Georgia's European path. Internal tensions between proposition and opposition hold back implementation of reforms. De-oligarchisation is a key issue that deserves a lot of attention - in the background, powerful individuals like Bidzina Ivanishvili play a major role in Georgian politics. Foreign - read Russian - interference in Georgian politics, disinformation, and unfair elections also need to be addressed.
It also hints that providing candidate status is an achievement of the Georgian people - and not of politicians (especially the ruling party). Many reforms are still needed before Georgia can take new steps towards opening negotiations, and the country's elections in late 2024 can only further increase political polarisation.
Moldova (candidate country)
Moldova applied for EU membership in March 2022 and obtained candidate membership in June 2022. The Commission highly commends Moldova and now recommends starting accession negotiations given the progress made in reforms. Progress has been made in anti-corruption legislation and new legislation to fight organised crime. Steps have been taken in the area of democracy and rule of law. Reforms in the judicial system follow EU recommendations. Media ownership has diversified and the government is taking steps to counter (Russian) disinformation. Public finances and public administration are being actively reformed. Moldova's foreign policy is in growing alignment with the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy. Also in Moldova, de-oligarchisation is a file that needs continued attention.
The commitment and results give much hope for Moldova's European future. Russian interference will remain a concern and could potentially delay accession, as will the position of the renegade Transnistria region.
Ukraine (candidate country)
Ukraine applied for membership in February 2022, as a direct result of the Russian invasion, and obtained candidate membership in June 2022. Obtaining candidate status, created tremendous hope, confidence and additional motivation to reform the country. Given the progress made and the ongoing commitment to reform, the Commission recommends that Starting accession negotiations with Ukraine. Despite the fact that the country is at war, reforms in democracy, rule of law, and more are being worked on in the background. Four of the seven steps Ukraine needed to complete before negotiations can begin have been accomplished: selection procedures for Constitutional Court judges, vetting of Supreme Court candidates, anti-money laundering legislation, and a media law. Corruption is being fought increasingly effectively and needs attention to be maintained to further counter it. The influence of oligarchs should be reduced and the proposed law for this should be implemented as soon as possible. The economy is suffering due to the war, which makes creating a functional market economy difficult. Structural challenges are rife but reconstruction offers an opportunity to modernise the economy and make it ready for the European single market. Regional cooperation with European countries has been strengthened thanks to the war, bringing more military and financial cooperation. Foreign policy is almost fully aligned with that of the EU.
The question is how the EU will deal with the situation when Ukraine is formally ready to join, but is still at war with Russia. Letting a country join at war is unprecedented and raises new issues when it comes to ensuring common security.
Prospects for new entry appear to be accelerating
The last country to join the EU was over a decade ago now - Croatia in 2013. In all cases, the EU and candidate countries must get ready for enlargement in the near future. It is unfortunate that it took a war to convince the EU that enlargement is necessary for a secure and stable Europe, and to finally speed up processes. Countries in the Western Balkans have been put on hold for too long without clear prospects despite their efforts in recent decades. This discontent has translated in recent years into anti-democratic and anti-EU sentiments in countries such as Montenegro, northern Macedonia and Albania. The challenge now is to recognise the need for enlargement and accelerate processes wherever possible. This will create a positive incentive in the candidate countries to implement some crucial reforms - this positive incentive of real perspective is already evident in Ukraine and Moldova.
In December, the European Council (the 27 heads of government) will shine their light on the Commission's recommendations and take decisions on how to proceed.