Econostrum | Economic News in the Mediterranean

The introduction of new Member States stuck in the European funnel

Those countries knocking at the EU's door - Part 1

Written by Frédéric Dubessy on Friday, November 20th 2020 à 17:00 | Read 2144 times

Despite his divorce from the United Kingdom and the break-up of his engagement with Turkey, the European Union still seduces, but knows how to make itself wanted. Its only suitors today are all in the Western Balkans. They have to work hard to put a ring on this sixty-three-year-old lady's finger, who is becoming more and more difficult to choose.

The 27 EU member states and the hole in the Western Balkans racket (map: European Commission)
The 27 EU member states and the hole in the Western Balkans racket (map: European Commission)

And the nominees are ...

At present, five countries are officially candidates to join the European Union: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey.

The post-Brexit negotiations are continuing between Europeans and the British. They are even entering an intensive phase just a few weeks before the end of the transition period that will take place on 1 January 2021, one year after the official separation. No Deal or agreement, the United Kingdom is the first to leave the European ship. The EU 28 will become the EU 27 again. While Brussels is trying to make the divorce as successful as possible, it is pushing the suitors away. It even agrees to help them with a pre-accession envelope of €12.6 billion for the next financial year from 2021 to 2027 (€11.5 billion for 2007-2013 and €11.7 billion for 2014-2020).
The Brexit shock, the need to reunite the Union, the financial crisis of 2008, and undoubtedly too rapid "external growth" (the EU has grown from 6 to 15 members in 38 years and then from 15 to 27 members in just 12 years) have cooled Europeans down on the issue of enlargement. For many, the EU opened its doors too early to Eastern European countries, notably Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. "The conditions of access have not been met for the latest entries. The EU is not capable of enforcing its own requirements," points out Rear Admiral Jean-François Coustillière, president of the IHEDN-Euroméditerranée association.
Croatia was the last country to join the European Union on 1 July 2013, ten years after its application (see box). While "any European country can apply for membership if it respects the Union's democratic values and undertakes to promote them", in the words of the European Commission, there is a long way to go before this opportunity is offered. No fewer than 35 chapters (see box) set out the rules to be respected.
They respond to four sets of criteria designed to bring about convergence between the candidate country and the EU. Three are the responsibility of the applicant. They are political and economic. One depends directly on the EU: the country's EU absorption capacity.
  These are all handicaps in this long-distance race for the right to fly the blue flag with twelve gold stars. The criteria focus on respect for European values (human dignity, democracy, rule of law, human rights....). They are matched by the benefits expected from enlargement. "Increased prosperity, three times more trade between old and new Member States, five times more trade between new Member States, greater stability in Europe, greater weight of the EU on the international stage", the European Commission boasts.

The Western Balkans, a hole in the snowshoe

The Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) launched in 1999 led to a European Council Resolution in 2003 to "fully support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries". A declaration confirmed in December 2006 at a new Council stating that "the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union". Wedged between the Eastern Member States, Greece and Italy, this region is the hole in the EU's snowshoe.
Between the two meetings, the EU welcomed Slovenia (2004) as a new member. Then, nine years later, Croatia. These two precedents raise hopes for their neighbours. Thus, of the five official candidates for membership (Iceland decided in March 2015 to withdraw its candidacy), four are from the Western Balkans (the fifth being Turkey): Albania, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

The files of the last two are at the top of the pile. They are the only ones, together with Turkey (see below), to be able to enter into accession negotiations. Montenegro has even just opened, on 30 June 2020, its last chapter, that on "Competition Policy". But it remains far from having fulfilled all the others, with only three considered closed ("External Relations", "Education and Culture", "Science and Research"). Serbia opened its chapter on "Free Movement of Capital" in December 2019. Seventeen chapters remain to be opened, with only two closed ("Science and Research" and "Education and Culture").

Albania (application in April 2009, status validated in June 2014) and Northern Macedonia (March 2004 and December 2005) received the green light from the Council of European Affairs Ministers at the end of March 2020 to start talks soon.

However, the EU/Balkans summit, held on 6 May 2020 in Zagreb, only allowed progress to be made on ... the management of the pandemic. The EU has therefore allocated a financial package of €3.3 billion, half of which in the form of loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB), to meet its humanitarian and health needs and contribute to economic and social recovery. Discussions on enlargement, logically the main focus of this summit, were not on the agenda.

Already the previous summit, in Sofia in May 2018, had skilfully replaced, in its final declaration, any idea of enlargement, or even accession, by a more neutral and, above all, less engaging term, that of "connectivity" linked to the vague notion of "European perspective". This policy has been put into effect by the adoption, at the beginning of October 2020 by the European Commission, of a €9 billion economic support plan (in the form of subsidies) for the six countries of the Western Balkans for the period 2021-2027. "It paves the way for successful regional economic integration in order to help accelerate convergence with the EU, bridge the development gap between our regions and, ultimately, speed up the process of European integration", emphasised then European Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Varhelyi.

At the beginning of November 2020, Angela Merkel announced that she hoped to start EU accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania before the end of the German Presidency of the European Council, i.e. before 31 December 2020.

Under the cobblestones of the former Yugoslavia, a Europe on the page

Recognised as potential candidates in 2003 and 2008 respectively, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo still have a long way to go to truly enter dance. Kosovo's independence, unilaterally declared in February 2008, is officially recognised by only 22 of the 27 Member States. Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Romania and Slovakia are missing.

This country has the euro as its currency, but is not dependent on the European Central Bank (ECB) and therefore does not belong to the euro area. "The currency of Kosovo will be determined by decree", according to the statute of the Central Bank of Kosovo. It therefore plans to have its own currency, the dardan.
The legacy of the wars (1991-2001) that led to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia has still not been dealt with. A point that the EU has long underestimated by requiring mutual recognition and good relations between these states as a precondition for accession. Even more difficult, accession requires a consensus among the 27.

It is true that Greece has finally agreed on the name of Northern Macedonia with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Croatia has reached an agreement with Slovenia (which has just become a Member State) to settle the border problem on the Gulf of Piran. So progress is being made. But there are also setbacks.
On Tuesday 17 November 2020, Bulgaria vetoed the start of accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia, scheduled to begin before the end of December 2020. Ekaterina Zaharieva, the Bulgarian Foreign Minister, justified her position by arguing that the country's... unresolved historical differences between the two countries. In particular over the very term "Macedonian language". According to Sofia, it does not exist and is only Bulgarian.

Already in October 2019, France vetoed the EU accession negotiations between Albania and Northern Macedonia. Paris believes that neither the countries of the Western Balkans nor the EU are ready for these entries.

The Stations of the Cross of the accession process

  • Signing of an association agreement (establishment of a free trade area with the EU)
  • Submission of candidatures to the Council of the Union
  • Candidate status approved by the European Commission by official notice
  • European Parliament vote on this candidate status
  • Approval by the Council of the Union of this candidate status
  • Implementation of a pre-accession strategy (access to European programmes, financial aid to carry out the necessary reforms, etc.).
  • Decision to open accession negotiations by the Council of the Union with four criteria to be met: political, economic, acquis communautaire, integration capacity.
  • Discussion on the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire
  • Regular publication of progress on chapters after bilateral conferences between the EU and the candidate country
  • Signature of the Accession Treaty
  • Ratification of the Accession Treaty by the candidate country
  • European Council approval of the Accession Treaty
  • Agreement of the European Parliament on the Accession Treaty
  • Ratification by all Member States and the candidate country of the Accession Treaty

Turkey on the roadside

"Turkey's candidacy is at a standstill." This communiqué of the Council of the Union, published in 2019, could not describe the situation more directly. The "I love you neither" between the EU and Ankara has turned into a real distance.
Turkey has enjoyed a privileged status with the EU since July 1959 and the signing of an association agreement with the European Community, followed by a customs union in 1995. A separate treatment, for better or for worse, reinforced by Ankara's request for accession to the EU in April 1987. This is what Henry Marty-Gauquié denounces. For the honorary director of the European Investment Bank (EIB), "The EU has authorised the opening of accession negotiations with a country that used to occupy a Member State. Politically, this is hardly unacceptable". He refers, of course, to Cyprus, whose division is once again in the spotlight.

It is an understatement to say that Turkey's path to Brussels remains chaotic. Recep Tayyip Erdogan's antics, but also European declarations, have nipped any rapprochement in the bud. "Some heads of state of member countries should not say just anything. Like Nicolas Sarkozy who announced, unnecessarily, his intention to refuse Turkey access to the EU. This created points of irritation that we did not need", Jean-François Coustillière stressed. "President Erdogan's attitude began to change after the statements of the former President of the Republic. For a Member State to unilaterally tell Turkey that it will not join the EU when it is up to the EU to decide is not a step in the right direction", Henry Marty-Gauquié echoed. "The Turkish business community has been mourning the 15 years or so since Turkey joined the EU. They would have been content to enter into a deep free trade area with Europe," he added. Before striking out, "Turkey, a country that has become imperialist and conflictive, is today unable to respect the European constraints of membership. Membership is no longer possible".
Disputes between most European states (but also the Commission and the European Parliament) over Turkish hydrocarbon explorations in disputed areas in the eastern Mediterranean are making this prospect increasingly remote.

With Ankara, as with any pretender, the EU is using the carrot and stick. The improvement of certain forms of cooperation, such as the customs union fantasised by Turkey, against the stopping of illegal drilling in the waters of Cyprus. At the beginning of October 2020, the European Commission indicated in a report that it still considered Turkey to be "a key partner" while regretting that the country "has continued to distance itself from the EU, with a serious setback in the areas of the rule of law and fundamental rights".

Croatia: A long knitting match before celebrating the Marriage of Wool with the EU

Less than thirty years after its independence and only seven years after its accession to the European Union, Croatia (4.13 million inhabitants) chaired the Council of the Union for the first time for six months (1 January to 30 June 2020) with the slogan "A strong Europe in a challenging world".

Croatia had to overcome many hurdles before reaching what it had considered to be a grail since October 2005 and the opening of negotiations: delicate cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) concerning the search for and arrest of Croatian generals accused of war crimes, the obligation to sign an agreement with Slovenia (which had just become a Member State) to give it access to the sea (Gulf of Piran). To facilitate its accession, it will have received only €3.5bn from the EU.

However, integration remains incomplete. Croatia cannot manage to swap its Kuna for the Euro, nor to become a member of the Schengen area.


Read our second part dedicated to the EU's Southern Neighbourhood Policy: Southern Mediterranean tries to break free from its borders with the EU

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