Barbara Matias examines the current situation regarding the partners and potential member candidates for the European Union.

With the United Kingdom’s exit looming, the European Union will for the first time lose a Member instead of enlarging its borders. Since its creation as the European Economic Community with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European project has singularly kept developing: from six founding Member States to the Maastricht Treaty of 1993 establishing the European Union and European citizenship, to ten former Warsaw Pact countries acceding in 2004, up to Croatia joining in 2013, the last enlargement and the first Balkan country to go from candidate to member.

The current twenty-eight Member States are complemented by several partnerships and bilateral association agreements with countries that participate in the integration project but have not acceded to the Union. At a time when hopeful candidates grow restless and the EU makes divisive headlines, this piece looks into the relations the EU maintains with neigh boring countries: those who do not want to join, those which are partners but not candidates and, most importantly, the countries which have lined up to bring the next foreseeable enlargement to fruition.

Frozen candidates

Any European country that fulfils the economic and political conditions laid out in the Copenhagen accession criteria of 1993 can apply for membership. These prioritise an established democracy, rule of law and the respect for human rights and minorities, and encompass 35 different policy fields during negotiations, which range from transport to energy, environment and agriculture. It also presupposes candidates’ eventual adherence to the single market and monetary union. Further institutional procedures on submitting a membership application are set forth in Article 49 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the most recent key amendment to the constitutional basis of the EU, in 2010.

Switzerland, Iceland and Norway are the three Western countries to have decided against EU Membership despite being very close geographical, political, economic, and cultural partners. All three have submitted applications, but froze or withdrew them soon afterwards. They are vital partners of the EU nonetheless and actively participate in integration efforts, such as the single market and the European Economic Area (EEA), the Schengen Area of free movement of persons, goods and capital, and the multilateral agreement composing the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). All three sovereign states have each also concluded an Association Agreement in exchange for evident political, economic, or trade commitments and human rights resolves.

In Switzerland, for instance, it is reported that over a million EU citizens live in Switzerland and another 300,000 cross the border daily for work. This small country is landlocked by EU Member States but, given a longstanding non-alignment policy, decided to participate in the integration project through bilateral agreements. The Swiss bid for membership was officially withdrawn by the government in 2016. The Icelandic governments have gone back and forth with their membership application, deciding in 2015 to suspend it and just this year to reinstate enlargement talks.

The strategic interests of Iceland, in large part due to being a country heavily reliant on its fishing industry, have been debated to be better served as a close partner to the EU rather than a Member bound by standardised policies. Norway is similarly integrated in trade and economic agreements, but has opted against membership twice, in national referendums in 1972 and 1994. All three are steady countries and strong economies that are already culturally immersed in EU values – arguments highlighting the socioeconomic benefits membership can propel therefore don’t find much strength. In contrast, Eastern European partners seem to chase EU membership in an effort to secure political stability or economic boosts. Yet insofar the close partnerships have triggered encouraging reforms but no accession talks.

Eastern Partnership

One of the most important foreign policy instruments of the EU is the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which encompasses countries linked to the external borders: Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia to the South, and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to the East. Within this diplomatic framework, only the latter group are covered by the Eastern Partnership program, which seeks to better extend the EU sphere of influence to the post-Soviet neighbouring states. It is a joint initiative designed to formally discuss increased cooperation, facilitate a legislative alignment and strengthen the EU’s role in conflict resolution. Just this year the partnership guaranteed another accomplishment in finalising the grant of visa-free travel within the Schengen Area to Ukrainian and Georgian citizens, a benefit Moldovans enjoy since 2014.

The Eastern Partnership has been construed as a stepping-stone to membership for the six states involved, yet there are no development in that direction and enlargement pretensions have been actively squashed until 2020. Most recently in the November 2017 joint summit, European Commission leaders reiterated that diplomatic and funding efforts made within this partnership are for delivering concrete improvements to citizens’ quality of life in financial opportunities, travel liberties or infrastructures’ modernisation, rather than membership promises. On these grounds, critics have dismissed the initiative as a geopolitical strategy to counter Russia’s political influence in the region or its appeal as a luring alternative, without offering a real pathway to accession. Perhaps owing to their own history and path to membership, the Visegrad group countries – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have been particularly vocal in signalling the potential and shared European perspective this set of countries have to be more than neighbouring partners.

Indeed European values are present in these partners and mutual agreements have improved relations and future prospects. Yet the raison d’être of the partnership remains the spread of EU soft power and not the promotion of real reforms to prepare membership. There is still a long way to go for this to top the priority list on the EU enlargement agenda, that lies somewhere else: right now all future enlargement eyes are set on the Western Balkans.

Western Balkan candidates

At the same that European Commission President Jean-Claude ruled out the impending possibility of Turkish membership in light of recent human rights concerns tied to the national referendum in May and escalating strain in German-Turkish relations, Juncker also encouraged decisive accession talks with the Western Balkan countries. Recognised candidates include Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia and the potential candidates are Bosnia and Herzgovina, and Kosovo.

Rooted in the European continent and landlocked by Member States, the countries that emerged after the disintegration of Yugoslavia display a core belonging to European values matched with a strategic location that serves EU interests in wide-ranging fields from the fight against human trafficking, the management of unprecedented refugee flows, and the transport or energy common policies. Speaking just this November in Macedonia, European Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn asserted that ‘’Member States have realised that peace could be achieved in the Balkans and that the [prospect] of joining the EU is vital for it.” Granting membership to the front runner candidates can be mutually beneficial, enriching the Union and prompting stability and firmer rule of law in the region. However, the domestic quarrels that make up Balkan regional dynamics have been flagged as a burden to bear rather than an asset to acquire.

Currently negotiations are underway with Montenegro and with Serbia to complete the manifold reforms needed before the state is deemed ready for accession, which include the core issue of stabilising relations with Kosovo for the latter. Montenegro and Albania profit from already being NATO members and not being afflicted by minority issues or ethnic tensions as other former Yugoslav countries. Moreover, relations with Macedonia and chiefly with Kosovo remain tense given a lacking unanimous recognition of both as sovereign states by all member states.

The Western Balkans are due for concrete efforts being made to bring their long and arduous path to membership to a successful close. This requires commitment from both sides: EU officials must devise a united compromise and the government of the designated country must showcase concrete structural reforms and legislative revisions on par with EU standards. Ultimately, it is treacherous for the EU to keep offering hollow promises and play a game of carrots and sticks. European leaders should be urged to work out and put forth a unanimous decision regarding all candidate countries before opening up folders packed with scattered intentions and incongruent diplomatic rapports. The Western Balkans’ midway and final stretch to membership therefore also encompasses efforts from the EU itself in identifying ways in which certain Member States have let domestic controversies forego the collective interest and overhanging future of the Union: that further enlargement to the Balkan countries where negotiations have been successful and reforms have been completed can solve internal issues and advance the EU integration project.
The European Union of twenty-eight is at a turning point and, in parallel, so are its neighbouring partners: should they indulge further negotiations or turn away from the stretched path to membership. In a Union of soon-to-be twenty-seven once more finding its voice and momentum, enlargement should be encouraged and prioritised in the EU political agenda.

Bárbara Matias
Bárbara Matias works for the European Commission as Desk Officer. Currently in the DG INTPA's Southeast Asia unit leading the Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos files, she previously led the Armenia joint programming file in DG NEAR. Before that, Bárbara worked as Programme Officer in NATO's Operations Division, on Iraq capacity-building and on Covid-19 aid coordination with the EU. She previously worked in Kosovo as Research Fellow at the Group for Legal and Political Studies focused on the EU enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans. Bárbara has written for online political platforms and peer-review journals since 2015. She holds a Master in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, New York where she was a Fulbright Graduate Scholar and undergraduate lecturer, and speaks 6 languages.

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    1. I have found this article very interesting. In particular, when everyone keeps being focused on Brexit co.related issues, Barbara R Matias introduces a key strategic alternative view on the EU framework – looking geographically around the 27 remaining Member States and identifying potential adherents to the European idea and common economic principles or even Euro market.
      Like at Brexit, the main issues in presence are strongly emotional in substance – since there is a political will, European Union also keeps having potential to grow further on its geographic margins. The emotion to join EU keeps being alive around several countries and possible new partners. And this is a very much positive idea and possibel key strategic target to be introduced at this time! Congratulations.

    2. Congrats for this Message of hope.
      Europe is a state of mind more than a common territory under a million statements and procedure principles . The unlimited potential for peace and welfare is already there.
      Remember This emporwerment movement called Europe Comunity and inlight its promise of wealthy future for all is allways “the Message”.

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