The EU's Slow, Selective Membership Growth

11 MINS READJan 28, 2013 | 11:16 GMT
The EU's Slow, Selective Membership Growth
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Pro-EU demonstrators in Belgrade

Despite the ongoing economic crisis, the European Union will continue to expand its membership, albeit more slowly and more selectively. EU accession remains an important foreign policy objective for several countries, especially Western Balkan countries, but endemic institutional and political obstacles will complicate their respective membership bids. Further complicating these countries' accession plans is the fact that the European Union simply does not have as great a strategic interest in them as it did in the countries that entered the union during previous enlargement periods. In any case, political fragmentation has curbed much of the bloc's desire to enlarge further.

Increased membership has long been a foreign policy objective for the European Union. Since its inception in 1957 as the European Economic Community, the European Union has grown from six members (West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) to 27 members, and more are on the way. Croatia became an acceding country in 2012 — its formal accession is slated for July — while Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey have been granted candidacy status. Brussels has also deemed Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo potential candidates.

Once a country has been accepted as a candidate, it begins formal negotiations led by the EU Commission to implement the economic, political and institutional reforms required for EU membership. The designation of "candidate country" does not imply a specific timeline for accession; in fact, negotiations do not have particular deadlines. As a result, the candidacy status does not ensure immediate EU accession. However, it does ensure funding. During the whole process, the EU provides candidate countries with technical and financial assistance to help them implement institutional and economic reforms.

Stages of Growth

EU enlargement has always been prompted by geopolitics. The first stage of growth took place in the mid-1970s, when the European Economic Community expanded northward, incorporating Ireland, Denmark and, most important, the United Kingdom, which has long been seen as the link between continental Europe and the United States. 

The second stage occurred in the mid-1980s. This time, the bloc expanded to the south, adding three countries that had just emerged from dictatorships: Spain, Portugal and Greece. For these countries, accession to the European Economic Community was a way to secure their democratic systems and align themselves with Western Europe and NATO.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s redrew the political map of Europe and in doing so heralded a third stage of growth. During this time, Austria and Finland — two countries that sought to protect their neutrality during the Cold War — joined to the newly formed European Union. Sweden, a non-NATO member that sought to counter its financial crisis with EU membership, likewise joined the bloc.

But the most ambitious phase of EU enlargement took place between 2004 and 2007, when the bloc nearly doubled its membership. Most of the new members were former Communist states in Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The reasoning behind adding these states was threefold. By adding them, the bloc could create a bulwark against Russia, physically surround the Western Balkans and gain access to their markets. Thus in just three years, the European Union grew from 15 to 27 members and could grow larger still if all interested countries implement the necessary reforms — no small task, given the countries' endemic problems.

The Western Balkans

Eu Candidates

Western Balkan countries are among the most interested in EU membership. Historically, the Western Balkans were under the influence of larger states or empires, most notably Austria, Turkey and Russia. After the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, most of these countries have aspired to become members of the European Union and NATO.

These countries still regard the European Union as the gateway to the West, which provides higher trade possibilities, potential foreign investment and EU financial assistance for infrastructure and institutional reform projects. For its part, the European Union believes that its expansion into the Western Balkans would bring political stability and economic opportunities to the region.

The process is extremely complex, since numerous territorial, ethnic and political issues complicate EU accession. However, three countries from the region have been awarded candidacy status: Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro.


Serbia, the heart of the Western Balkans, was the center of former Yugoslavia's power and its legal successor. After Yugoslavia collapsed, civil wars led to lasting animosities between Serbia and its neighbors. Currently, Serbian relations with its neighbors are cold, especially with Croatia. The two countries have border disputes and accuse one another of genocide.

In recent years, Belgrade has ​​gained favor with the European Union. Specifically, it has delivered Yugoslav war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal. Moreover, it has resumed talks to normalize relations with Kosovo, a country that, since its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, has defined Serbia's relationship with its neighbors and with the European Union. Belgrade's relationship with Brussels has steadily improved since the mid-2000s, and Serbia was granted EU candidacy status in 2012.

The status of Kosovo remains the single biggest impediment to Serbian EU accession. The European Union requires Belgrade to normalize its relations with Pristina as a condition for moving forward with accession talks — something that has proved difficult, given that Belgrade has pledged to never recognize Kosovo's independence.

In 2012, relations improved between Serbia and Kosovo. Belgrade and Pristina made several agreements that improved the lives of Kosovars, especially ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, and integrated the process by which border crossings are managed. In the coming months, the talks between Belgrade and Pristina are likely to focus on normalizing ties, particularly regarding the status of Serbs living in northern Kosovo. However, strong nationalist feelings in both countries have undermined progress in these negotiations.


Unlike other countries in former Yugoslavia, Macedonia achieved independence relatively peacefully. Macedonia applied for EU membership in 2004 and was granted candidacy status the following year. However, there are three main obstacles to Macedonia's EU accession.

The first is political and ethnic conflict within the country. Tensions exist between ethnic Macedonians, who constitute roughly 75 percent of the population, and ethnic Albanians. Violence erupts between these groups frequently. Meanwhile, constant infighting among Macedonian political parties has prevented the country from implementing economic and institutional reforms.

The second obstacle for Macedonia's EU accession is the status of the rule of law, including corruption and institutional irregularities in the country. Brussels has identified these issues as key problems to be solved before Macedonia can become an EU member.

Third, Macedonia maintains diplomatic disputes with Greece, a NATO and EU member. Athens believes that using the name Macedonia would enable Skopje to claim Greek territories of the same name. Greece therefore opposes Macedonia's inclusion in NATO and the European Union. Moreover, Bulgaria has threatened to block Macedonia's EU accession, citing discrimination of the country's Bulgarian minority.

In December, the Council of the European Union stated that accession negotiations could start by mid-2013. Macedonia is nonetheless unlikely to become a member before the end of the decade.


Like Macedonia, Montenegro achieved independence in a way that was not particularly contentious, and the country has no substantial disputes with its neighbors. In addition, Montenegro is relatively ethnically homogenous, and as such it does not experience the same levels of interethnic violence as its neighbors.

Montenegro applied for EU membership in 2008, only two years after becoming an independent country. Accession negotiations formally began in June 2012. In December 2012, Podgorica closed the first of Montenegro's 35 negotiation chapters regarding science and research.

However, some obstacles remain. The main factor impeding Montenegro's accession to the European Union pertains to corruption and organized crime. In a report released in October 2012, the European Commission said Montenegro has to make additional efforts to establish "a transparent, efficient and accountable administration" and to strengthen judicial accountability. More important, the Commission also said that "corruption remains widespread" and continues to be a serious cause for concern, hindering law enforcement investigations of organized crime.

Albania and Kosovo

Albania applied for EU membership in 2009, but the bloc has refused to grant it candidate status. According to Brussels, Tirana has to make further progress on judicial reform, fight against corruption and enhance transparency. According to an October 2012 report from the European Union, if Albania continues to make institutional reforms, and if the country manages to hold transparent parliamentary elections in June 2013, Brussels would recommend granting Albania candidate status. Aside from these reforms, Albania's NATO membership obviates the need for the European Union to take it on as a member.

Kosovo's situation is more complex. The political future of the country is linked to the status of its negotiations with Serbia. In any case, five members of the European Union — Spain, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus — do not recognize Kosovo's independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina has also been identified by the European Union as a potential candidate country, but it has yet to formally apply for membership.

Other Candidates


Traditionally, Iceland has maintained close relations with the European Union. The island is already a member of the European Economic Area, which provides access to the single market, and is also a member of the Schengen zone. Iceland's 2008 financial crisis accelerated the domestic debate about full EU membership. Accession talks were approved after a referendum, and in 2010, the European Union granted Iceland official candidate status.

Unlike the Balkan countries, Iceland has no major obstacles at the institutional level. However, two major issues have slowed Iceland's membership bid. The first is fishing quotas. The fisheries industry accounts for approximately 25 percent of Iceland gross domestic product. Reykjavik fears that EU accession will force it to share fishing quotas with other countries.

The second obstacle is public opinion. EU membership is a highly controversial issue in Iceland. Various surveys conducted in 2012 show that between 53 percent and 57 percent of Icelandic citizens oppose EU accession. The main political parties in Iceland are divided on this matter, and access to the European Union will be a central issue in the campaign for the April 4 general elections. (The Icelandic government said it would suspend EU talks until after the elections.) Even if negotiations progress, Iceland's membership in the European Union will have to be ratified by Icelanders through a referendum.


The relationship between Turkey and the European Union is one of the most controversial elements of EU foreign policy. During the Cold War, Turkey aligned with the United States and Western Europe. It became a member of NATO in 1952, an associate member of the European Economic Community in 1963 and a founding member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1973. Turkey also signed a customs union agreement with the European Union in 1995 and was granted candidacy status in 1999.

But things began to change in the early 2000s. Turkish foreign policy was redefined under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkey slowly ascended as a regional power. Meanwhile, negotiations with the European Union stalled, resulting in somewhat cooled relations between Brussels and Ankara.

The European Union is concerned that Turkey's accession would unbalance the bloc. With a population of 75 million, Turkey would be the second-most populous country in the European Union, and its comparatively high fertility rates mean it could become the most populated EU member, if accepted. This would give Ankara substantial weight in EU decision-making. At the same time, countries in Western Europe, notably France and Germany, fear that Turkey's accession would entail a massive wave of immigration. Complicating the situation are Greece and Cyprus, both of which maintain territorial disputes with Turkey.

However, Turkey and the European Union have strong economic relations, ranging from trade to tourism. They also share common energy diversification needs, and they are both interested in a balance of power in the Middle East.

In this context, Turkey's formal accession to the European Union remains unlikely — but as Europe's political and economic weight declines and Turkey consolidates as a regional power, cooperation on economic and political issues will likely remain strong.

Tempered Desire for Expansion

More countries — especially those in the Western Balkans — are likely to join the European Union, but the process will extend to the end of the decade. Unlike previous periods of growth, the European Union lacks real strategic interests in incorporating most of the current candidates, which have small economies and already are surrounded by EU and NATO members. Furthermore, political fragmentation within the European Union tempers any desire to grow further.

After nearly doubling its membership from 2004 to 2007, the European Union will become more selective in its incorporation of new members. At the same time, the ongoing crisis will make the European Union somewhat less attractive to potential members, which will be reluctant to implement structural reforms if they believe the costs of reform outweigh the benefits of membership.

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