Fredrik Schiller
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EU enlargement – pace and issues

Fredrik Schiller is a former Swedish Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina and to Eritrea. He is an economist and advisor primarily on wider European affairs, the Horn of Africa and international organisations. He has served at the United Nations, in the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  He is a conflict specialist with solid experience of operational crisis management and recovery and is strongly committed to innovative solutions to geostrategic challenges and to smart and sustainable entrepreneurship.


“European integration is the process of industrial, economic, political, legal, social and cultural integration of states wholly or partially in Europe, or nearby.”


The European Union was initially formed as just a coal and steel cooperative in 1951, by the then West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux trio. It has over time developed into both a political and monetary union. The EU has since then been enlarged seven times; 1973 (with Denmark, the UK and Ireland), 1981 (Greece), 1986 (Portugal, Spain), 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden), 2004 (Czechia, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia), 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania) and in 2013 with Croatia.

Challenging lessons learned from recent enlargements, regarding economic and clear democratic deficits among its new member states, have resulted in a slowing pace of Enlargement during the last decade. While some applicant countries are actively promoted by some EU members, there was for some time no unanimity about the progress of candidacies, or about the timings – all formally based on relatively strict criteria. But the war raging in Europe has shaken this up and there is a new sense of urgency now.  

The EU’s present enlargement agenda includes the following three groups of states:

• South-Eastern Europe (SEE or “Western Balkans”), that is Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

• “The Association Trio” of Georgia, Moldova – and Ukraine.

• And Turkey.

So, ten countries wish to join, or in Brussels jargon, to be integrated into the European Union, as full members.

Why so slow?

The SEE is a quite diverse group of neighbouring states. Except for Albania, they are the former Yugoslavian republics that were left pending when Slovenia joined the EU two decades ago and Croatia followed a decade later. While Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia have become members of NATO, an organisation whose common values of individual liberties, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, are quite like the EU’s common principles, they are still now seeking to fulfil the detailed (and demanding) criteria for membership of the EU. North Macedonia was also for years blocked by Greece, before adopting its current name.

Of those SEE states all, except for Kosovo, have advanced to the status of formal EU candidate countries, and so are on their respective development paths towards full membership. However, their respective timings depend on how they individually fulfil the EU´s detailed membership criteria. Rule of law issues, such as insufficient independence of the judiciary, crime and corruption with spill over into the EU, have slowed the pace of these processes.

Serbia and BiH have also been seen as politically too dependent on Russia, which clearly seeks to hinder their EU membership process, as well as keeping Europe generally divided about the West Balkans. The Belgrade government today still has a direct line to Moscow and vice versa; and in BiH the Bosnian-Serb entity (Republika Srpska), led by President Milorad Dodik, openly continues to have close links to Moscow and to question why BiH as a federation should join the EU.

Turkey is on its own slow track to EU membership, facing a lack of Brussels unity about how, when and even if, it should become an EU member. This despite Turkey having established relations with the EU already back in 1959, formalised in 1963, and being one of the EU’s main partners with a customs union with the EU. Brussels has repeatedly criticised Turkey for human rights violations and for weaknesses in its rule of law. The strong Turkish presidency created by the 2017 Turkish referendum is also considered to violate the EU's Copenhagen criteria of eligibility for membership. The issues of the continuing Turkish enclave in Cyprus, an EU member state, and more recently the large influx of Syrian refugees and illegal migration to Europe, continue to complicate Turkey´s accession bid.

War quickens the pace, but issues remain

Russia’s military attack on Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its occupation of the Donbas of eastern Ukraine that year did not fully awaken EU countries to Russian realities. Poland and the Baltic EU members repeatedly warned of what would likely follow, but it took Russia’s large-scale war against Ukraine from early 2022 to really shake up the Union. President Volodymyr Zelensky quickly realised that while full NATO membership was way off in the future, the EU could at least in a nearer term provide a political umbrella - and assistance.

In this Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova were successful and EU leaders in December 2023 gave the green light for them to open accession negotiations, once they have taken steps listed by the European Commission (EC). Both countries, mostly Ukraine, have since early 2022 received considerable EU financial and other support. The EU aid is unmatched in scope and volume and unanimous - except for Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his Fidesz party openly maintains close links with President Vladimir Putin. Slovakia´s recently re-elected Prime Minister, Robert Fico, is also no friend of Ukraine. Like Hungary, he has a record of discord with Ukraine, a country with Hungarian and Slovak minorities. Both leaders see national advantages in Ukraine being territorially divided in future.

A positive development is that the Commission on 12 March recommended opening EU accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina, eight years after it applied for membership. In announcing the decision, EC President Ursula van der Leyen said in the European Parliament (EP) that BiH had taken “impressive steps forward” and had achieved more in the last year than in over a decade. The Commission’s BiH recommendation now needs the approval of all 27 EU leaders, who are set to decide on this soon. This while Srpska’s President Dodik just last month held his fourth meeting with President Putin since Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine. So, while clear challenges remain on the ground, this week’s decision on BiH shows the EU’s recent openness to enlargement. Other applicants can find hope in this.

Moldova also faces increased Russian pressure, now over the Russian presidential elections being arranged by Moscow in its occupied Transnistrian territory on the eastern bank of the river Dniester. This sliver of land was in Soviet days the base of the large 14th Army and Russian troops remain there, creating instability for the quite fragile Moldovan democracy. This as well as Transnistria being a potential source of a Russian militarily stab in Ukraine’s back.

EU migration and asylum policy is also likely to complicate enlargement, at a time when its 27 member states are intensifying their common efforts to establish an effective, humanitarian and safe European migration policy. The European Council of heads of state and governments will continue to guide this key process with the aim of asylum seekers being treated uniformly across continental Europe. But it also must be voted on by the European Parliament.

Migration will be one controversial key topic for the European elections on 6-9 June. Given the substantial growth of right-wing parties in Europe, the influence of them in the European Parliament is likely to be stronger over the next five years and risks the EU migration deal as such. This risk was just demonstrated by the Portuguese parliamentary elections on 10 March, in which the populist Chega party quadrupled its number of MPs.

This is a European political trend which threatens to again slow down the renewed pace of EU enlargement.  That would just play into President Putin’s hands by dividing the EU at a truly crucial time.


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