EU Enlargement – Will this be happening anytime soon?

Article written by Faith Spearing, Executive at SEM

Published in The Malta Independent

On June 17, the European Commission presented its opinions on the EU membership applications presented by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The Commission has recommended that Ukraine and Moldova are to be granted EU candidate status, while Georgia should be granted this status after the country has addressed key priorities.

These recommendations come just a few months after Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, took the first step in an intensive and far-reaching transformative process to become EU Member States.

Although these three potential candidates are required to complete the EU’s established four-step process for accession - application, candidacy, negotiations and accession - it seems that their accession bids are already making headway.

The European Commission’s recommendations are based on assessment of the applications considering the EU’s accession criteria, commonly known as the Copenhagen criteria. These criteria require that a country has the institutions to preserve democratic governance and human rights, has a functioning market economy, and has the structures and ability to take on the obligations of Union membership. A country can be considered as a candidate for EU Membership only if it meets these criteria.

Based on the Copenhagen criteria, Ukraine and Moldova have been recommended to be granted candidate status on the understanding that both countries would carry out reforms to meet the Union’s political and economic standards particularly with respect to rule of law and the excessive influence of oligarchs.

On the other hand, Georgia has been recommended to be granted candidate status once a number of priorities have been addressed. Particularly, the Commission highlights the need for Georgia to design a clear path towards structural reforms.

While the Commission’s greenlight to Ukraine and Moldova candidate status is a step in the right direction, these countries are not yet officially considered as candidates for EU Membership. Official EU candidate status must now be unanimously agreed upon by the Heads of State or Government of the Member States during a European Council meeting happening between June 23 and 24.

Even if the Council were to confer candidate status on these applicant countries, EU membership is still a long way ahead.

Should Ukraine and Moldova be granted candidate status, becoming an EU Member State would only be possible after negotiations and necessary reforms have been completed to the satisfaction of both the acceding countries and the Member States.

To date, there are five countries that hold official EU Candidate status: Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are considered as potential candidates as they do not yet meet the criteria to apply for membership.

Even though all the official candidate countries have entered the negotiation phase, all countries have a long way to go before the process is wrapped up. So far, it does not seem that any one of the candidate countries will be joining the EU in the near future.

Furthermore, the EU Treaties establish that all existing Member States must unanimously agree before an enlargement of the Union can take place. This can be particularly challenging, especially when considering the growing number of Member States that are sceptical to further enlargement of the Union.

Overall, the accession process from application stage to becoming an EU Member State typically takes over 10 years before it is finalised. Therefore, although Ukraine and Moldova are on the right track to achieving official EU candidate status, it is not foreseen that EU membership is on the cards for them any time soon. This is more so for Georgia, who may or may not be granted potential candidate status.