Who is next to join the European Union?

The European Union hasn’t finished expanding, there are actually several countries who are in the process of joining right now!

Any country who joins is legally obliged via EU treaty to replace their own domestic currency with the Euro.

Following recent news that both Ukraine and Moldova were granted ‘EU candidate status’ we’ll take a look at which countries are potentially next to join the European Union.

A multi-stage process.

Whilst any country could say ‘we want to be an EU member’ there is actually a long multi-stage process that they must go through before they can be considered even a ‘candidate’ for membership.

To begin with a country must be granted official ‘candidate status’ by the EU Commission (the EU’s executive body.) No negotiations or formal discussions on accession can take place until a country has been given this status.

Once the Commission has granted formal candidate status, the EU Council (the body made up of national leaders) must then unanimously declare that they are willing to open negotiations with the candidate country.

Once formally approved, a country must meet what is known as ‘the Copenhagen criteria.’ These are a set of political, economic, administrative and institutional criteria that a country is judged against. They include things such as judicial independence, rule of law ranking, civil service effectiveness, and market freedom. Once the EU has decided they have met these criteria, treaty negotiations can take place and following multiple levels of approvals, the country can ascend to EU membership.

At present there are several countries who could potentially join and they have differing status. We’ll look below at them in the order of how close/far they are from joining.

- Official candidate countries with open formal ascension negotiations -

Montenegro

Montenegro achieved candidate status in 2010 just four years after it broke away from its neighbour Serbia and became an independent country. Two years later, negotiations began and to date Montenegro has already concluded some key negotiations with the EU.

The country is well on its way to membership with some speculating it could be achieved within the next few years.

EU member states from across the continent are generally supportive of Montenegrin membership and unlike other potential members, there are no obvious major red flags that could stall or put a damper on the country’s ambitions.

Interestingly, Montenegro unilaterally adopted the Euro as its currency when it left Serbia in 2006. It has been informally using it ever since and this has surprisingly not had much of an impact on the negotiations.

 

Serbia

Out of all the current and potential EU members, Serbia is the most divided in terms of where it sees its future. Many would like Serbia to become a Western democracy, however a significant number of Serbs see their natural support and ally being Russia and support a political system modelled more towards Moscow.

Serbia applied in 2009, was granted candidate status in 2012 and began negotiations the following year to become an EU member. At present they have closed and completed a couple of negotiation streams however they still have a long way to go.

There are several red flags around the domestic political system and corruption is a big stumbling block. The war in Ukraine has also highlighted how different Serbian domestic views are from its neighbours. The Serbian relationship with Russia is proving to be highly problematic in other European capitals. Serbian accession is therefore much more complicated than that of its neighbour Montenegro.

Turkey

Turkey’s relationship with the European Union is long and complex. Its application for membership began back at a time when many current EU members were not even independent nations.

Its application was delivered in the late 80’s and it was granted candidate status in 1999. At the time Turkey had a pro-European government and was moving further in a secular Western direction.

Over time domestic politics has taken a rightward, religious turn and Turkey is no longer the shining Western democracy it was once billed as.

Since the late 2000’s negotiations started to be paused and in 2018 following their onward slide to authoritarianism, the EU published a memorandum declaring that negotiations were indefinitely frozen.

- Official candidate countries who are not yet negotiating -

Albania

Albania applied for EU membership in 2009 and was granted official candidate status in 2014. Their membership application is formally tied with that of North Macedonia meaning that if one is held up, so is the other.

North Macedonia’s difficulties have therefore had a knock on effect on Albania, delaying Albanian progress despite them being ready to start formal talks.

The green light was given for talks to begin in 2020, but a dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria has held them up, much to the frustration of both Albania and other EU states. If talks begin soon in earnest, Albania could well be an EU member by the end of the decade.

North Macedonia

North Macedonia’s path to EU membership has been long and problematic. To begin with it acquired candidate status in 2005, however Greece held up membership talks for over a decade due to a complex political dispute with the country over its name. (Originally North Macedonia was called ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ however Greece disputed that this name led to a territorial claim on parts of Greece.) In 2019, this dispute was resolved, the country changed its name to a mutually acceptable one and Greece lifted its objections.

Almost immediately though, Bulgaria raised objections on the grounds of historic cultural and linguistic issues and vetoed further talks. This has been ongoing for a while now and a series of Bulgarian domestic political crises have only complicated the matter.

At present there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it looks like a compromise has been reached, however the situation is tense and the agreements fragile.

Like with Albania, if talks begin formally soon then North Macedonia could become an EU member by the end of the decade.

Moldova

Moldova applied for membership of the EU just a few days after Ukraine earlier on this year.

It was subsequently granted candidate status at the same time as Ukraine later on in the year.

Moldova is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania and is regularly ranked as one of the least developed of all potential EU members.

The path to membership will be long as Moldova has to grapple with multiple problems as well as a breakaway region Transnistria, that sees itself more as a Russian satellite than a region of Europe. (At present, there is believed to be a Russian military presence in Transnistria.)

One of the interesting developments in the future could be related to Moldovan-Romanian relations. Moldova was historically a part of Romania and over the last decade, support for a reunification has grown on both sides of the border. Moldova could potentially become an EU member via the backdoor by choosing to become a part of Romania.

 

Ukraine

Ukraine was granted candidate status alongside Moldova just a few weeks ago. It applied in the midst of the war with Russia as part of its plans for future security.

Since it gained independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union, Ukraine has trod a precarious path between East and West. Its governments have alternated between pushing for closer ties with the West and closer ties with Moscow.

The 2014 revolution (which was in part a push for closer integration with Europe) led to a signing of an association agreement and then the start of internal reforms aimed at applying in the future for EU membership.

Russia’s invasion and the EU’s whole-hearted support led to them pushing up their timetable and the EU quickly recognising them as a candidate within a couple of months.

The situation is blurry due to the wall and accession will take many years, even after the war is over and the rebuilding has begun. The EU Candidature status can be seen as more symbolic in the short-term rather than based on concrete plans.

- Countries who have applied but are not yet recognised as official candidates by the EU Commission -

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina formally applied for membership of the European Union just a few months before Britain voted to leave. For the last few years there has been considerable back and forth and not much progress has been made.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a multi-ethnic federated state whose domestic politics are incredibly complex. One part of the state has a strong desire for independence and the country has multiple fracture points.

The EU has set out a number of points, particularly on law and order as well as political and institutional stability that need to be addressed before the country can be awarded official candidate status.

Despite pushing for an accelerated process following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, little has changed. Many view Bosnian membership as the least likely of all the potential future members.

Georgia

Georgia, like Ukraine, has been in limbo regarding where it sees its future. In 2003 a revolution took place that pushed the pro-Russian former Soviet leader from power and replaced him with a westward looking President.

In 2008, Russia invaded and this pushed the country closer to the West.

Georgia formally applied for EU membership in 2022, ahead of schedule and brought forward because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The EU has looked favourably on the caucasus nation but stated it must first make further progress in reforms before it will be formally declared a candidate.

Positive EU sentiment is wide-spread in the country and there is a domestic appetite to push ahead. The EU will be looking again at the end of the year at the Georgian case and could potentially declare it an official candidate then.

- Countries who are contemplating applying for membership -

Kosovo

Kosovo is a tiny nation in the heart of the Balkans that has not even been formally recognised by several EU countries as a legitimate independent country.

Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia all refuse to recognise Kosovo’s legitimacy.

For most, the reasoning is simple, they fear the precedent granting legitimacy would set for their own internal secessionist movements, for example, how could Spain recognise Kosovo yet refuse to countenance the Catalonian or Basque independence movements.

The EU has formally asked the remaining five nations to give their recognition, however until such a time it will be impossible for Kosovo, no matter how strong it may domestically want it, to gain recognition as even a candidate.

- Countries who have rejected membership/ are not interested in membership but who could easily join -

Iceland

Back in 2009, Iceland formally applied for EU membership during a financial crisis that hit the Icelandic economy hard. The application was wrapped up in the discussions of whether the Icelandic króna should be replaced by the Euro.

Given that Iceland was already a member of the European Economic Area, and much of the EU legislation was therefore already in place, it was expected that accession would be a speedy process.

The move was highly controversial though and following domestic political changes, just a couple of years later Iceland moved to delay and then ultimately freeze its application process.

To date there have been little further moves and the vast majority of Icelandic lawmakers are opposed to joining. Despite this, should things change, Iceland could still expect a speedy ascension to full membership.

Norway

Despite rejecting EU membership in both 1972 and 1994, Norway is fundamentally tied to the EU. It is a member of the EEA and shares a land border with the EU nations of Sweden and Finland.

As an EEA member, Norway is required to abide by many EU rules and regulations.

Despite this, a large majority of Norwegians are actively opposed to membership and would be loath to give up their currency, the Norwegian Kroner.

Future membership though can’t be ruled out given the challenges that Norway will face in the coming decades, especially as nations move away from fossil fuels which a lot of the Norwegian wealth is built on.

Switzerland

The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is long and complicated. It would require a blog all of its own to explain in detail.

In summation, the relationship is governed by a number of complex bilateral agreements and treaties.

Despite being a market economy and a liberal democracy surrounded by the EU, the Swiss have virtually no desire to join. Swiss neutrality is at the bedrock of the countries culture and EU membership is seen by many as a breach of neutrality.

In 1992 they narrowly rejected EEA membership and in 2016 formally withdrew all requests for potential membership.

There is very little chance of Switzerland joining the EU in the short, medium or long term.

 

United Kingdom

Finally, the most unlikely potential new member on the list is the UK.

Despite voting to leave in 2016, the UK still meets most of the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ and therefore could rejoin quite quickly.

Several key EU figures have stated that the UK would be welcomed back and there is a significant proportion of the population who would like to rejoin.

Whilst it seems unlikely, stranger things have happened in recent years!

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