EU expansion: How close are the nine candidate states to membership? 

More than a decade since the European Union last welcomed a new member, the bloc is stepping up accession efforts in the shadow of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Georgians wave EU and national flags as they gather to celebrate Georgia's EU candidacy in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Dec. 15, 2023

By Sarah Schug

Sarah is a staff writer for The Parliament with a focus on art, culture, and human rights.

03 Jul 2024

In the past decade the European Union, once known for its sweeping mass enlargements, has lost one member and gained none. As geopolitical risk rises, that could be about to change.  

There are nine countries currently in the EU’s formal accession process and senior figures in the European institutions are talking openly about speeding the process along.  

Five of the candidate countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – are in the Western Balkans. Georgia and Moldova are in a very different situation as former Soviet republics with pro-Russian breakaway regions, and Ukraine is fighting a defensive war against its much larger neighbour. 

While Georgia has recently approved a contentious law targeting alleged foreign influence that is bound to set back its membership aspirations, Ukraine and Moldova entered official accession negotiations with the EU on 25 June. “Both countries have demonstrated impressive commitment to reform and alignment with European values”, wrote Council President Charles Michel on the occasion.   

The final candidate is Turkey, which is in a category of its own. The country’s accession process has been stalled since 2018 with no foreseeable prospect of advancing.

The EU needs to realise that these countries have an alternative now. 

Meanwhile, in November, the European Commission published its Growth Plan for the Western Balkans in an attempt to reinvigorate that part of the enlargement process.  

“We have realised that it is not enough to just wait for the Western Balkans to move closer to us. It is not enough to say that the door is open,” Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said at the European Parliament in March. “We must also take responsibility and support their path towards our union in any possible way.”  

This marks the end of a period that has widely been described as “enlargement fatigue.” Berta López Domènech, a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, explains: “When you absorb 13 new members over the course of 10 years, it makes sense that you need some time to process it. If you look at Bulgaria and Luxembourg for instance, there is still a massive socioeconomic gap [between them].”   

But she isn’t so concerned about another frequent criticism – that the EU’s accession standards might slip.  

“I don’t see another ‘big bang’ enlargement happening. The issues that need to be solved in the candidate countries are too complicated to be ignored for the sake of political urgency,” she says, noting that accession requires a unanimous vote among the bloc’s existing leaders in the European Council.  

And while the EU may need to reform its internal processes to accommodate new members, that shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction, López Domènech says: “You cannot justify not enlarging because you are not reforming, and you cannot say we are not going to reform because we are not going to enlarge.”   

Concluding at least one new accession agreement, perhaps with Montenegro, could send a positive sign to the region. “This kind of success story would show the other candidates that the EU is serious about this, which again would give a tool to reformist civil society actors to push their respective elites and governments,” she says.  

Given the battle with Russia over influence in the region, this is more urgent than ever. “The EU needs to realise that these countries have an alternative now,” warns López Domènech, pointing out that in both Serbia and North Macedonia the number of people who see the EU in a positive light is already declining.   

Here is an update on where the nine candidate countries’ accession applications currently stand:   

Albania

Albania submitted its application for EU membership in 2009 and achieved candidate status in 2014. The Commission’s latest progress report highlighted that there is still a lot to improve when it comes to more stable political institutions, ensuring the rule of law, and respecting human and minority rights in the country. During Albanian local elections last year, testy relations with neighbouring Greece threatened to throw a spanner in the works when ethnic Greek Fredi Beleri – mayor-elect of Himare, an ethnically Greek city in Albania – was arrested on vote buying and corruption charges. He was convicted this month. Squabbles between the two countries are likely to remain an obstacle to Albania’s EU accession.   

Bosnia and Herzegovina 

“More progress has been achieved in just over a year than in over a decade,” Von der Leyen said in her recent speech on enlargement at the European Parliament, recommending the opening of accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had been granted candidate status in December 2022. The country has passed several laws on conflicts of interest, anti-money laundering and countering terrorist financing. Nevertheless, the government has struggled to control organised crime, corruption, and the separatist endeavours of the ethnically Serbian Republika Srpska region, which accounts for about a third of the country’s overall population. 

Georgia 

After an initial refusal in 2022 due to political polarisation, instability and the presence of powerful oligarchs in the country, the EU granted Georgia candidate status in December 2023. Georgia, the only candidate not to share a border with an existing EU member, is partially occupied by Russian troops after a five-day war in 2008 over the separatist provinces South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In November 2023, a Georgian civilian was shot by Russian troops in the breakaway regions. While this situation is an obstacle to EU membership, a 2023 survey by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers found that the population as a whole is strongly in favour of joining the bloc. More recently, Georgia’s accession aspirations seem to have come to a halt. The country’s much-contested “foreign agents bill”, which was signed into law in June, sparked protests at home and criticism abroad for restricting media freedom, and now stands in the way of advancing the EU accession process. 

Montenegro 

A Nato member and the smallest of the Balkan countries, Montenegro applied for EU membership in 2008 and officially started the accession process in June 2012. After complaints by the Commission about “political volatility [and] government instability and tensions” – coupled with a lack of political will to push forward with the application – the tides are turning following the election of a new government in October 2023. Prime Minister Milojko Spajić of the “Europe Now” movement has pledged to accelerate reforms and unblock the accession process. The 36-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker has declared joining the EU a foreign policy priority, aiming to gain membership as early as 2028.  

Moldova

A battleground of influence between the EU and Russia, Moldova’s government, with its pro-European president, Maia Sandu, took a clear turn towards the EU when it applied for membership in March 2022. Last year, the EU deployed a civilian mission to the former Soviet republic after warnings of a potential coup by pro-Russian politicians. Moscow continues to support the separatist enclave of Transnistria, with around 1,500 Russian troops stationed in the region. Although there are doubts over whether its accession can proceed while Russian troops are on Moldovan soil, the EU started the official accession talks with Moldova on 25 June.

North Macedonia 

North Macedonia achieved candidate status in 2005 but accession negotiations didn’t begin until March 2020, the longest gap in the EU’s history. Greece insisted on the country changing its name from Macedonia as a precondition of advancing the process, which was done in 2019. Bulgaria then created a new obstacle, demanding that North Macedonia change its constitution and agree to its view that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian and that certain ethnic Macedonians are Bulgarian. So far, there has been no majority in the parliament in Skopje to bring about such a change.   

Serbia 

Serbia’s path to EU accession will remain blocked until it can normalise relations with Kosovo, which broke away from the state in 2008, the Commission has said. Nevertheless, Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and has been a candidate since 2012. Irregularities during the country’s most recent elections in December created another roadblock when an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission discovered manipulation and voter fraud. President Aleksandar Vučić’s closeness to Russia and his increasing anti-EU rhetoric present another problem. A poll by Demostat from June 2023 revealed that only 33 per cent of the Serbian population wants to join the EU – the lowest approval rating in the region.   

Turkey  

Turkey’s accession process, which began in 1999, has been at a standstill since 2018. While the Commission calls the country a “leading partner,” it clarified in its latest progress report that the conditions for progress in the accession process are not being met – namely, respect for the rule of law, democratic values and human rights, as well a resolution to the ongoing sovereignty dispute between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tried to tie his approval of Sweden’s NATO membership to Turkey’s EU accession process, before backing down.   

Ukraine

Ukraine applied for EU membership on 28 February 2022, four days after it was invaded by Russia – ultimately reigniting the bloc’s enlargement agenda. The EU granted Ukraine candidate status in June that year and, in December 2023, EU leaders agreed to open accession negotiations. Although this is the first time that a nation at war has asked to join the EU, the accession negotiations, which will likely last years, were officially set in motion on 25 June.

Read the most recent articles written by Sarah Schug - Gaza protests take hold inside EU institutions