February 01, 2024

Who will be the next EU member?

By Alexandru Giosan

After years of unfulfilled promises, the European Union (EU) appears to have rekindled its commitment to EU enlargement. Despite previous reservations, the recent war in Ukraine has prompted member states to view enlargement as a strategic measure to counter Russian aggression. Consequently, accession talks with potential candidates have been revived, with a speculated deadline of 2030 for at least one new member to join. This article will be looking into each applicant country, and ranking the likeliness of their accession from least likely to most likely.

To assess the likelihood of accession for each applicant, it is essential to understand the multi-step process involved. To initiate the EU accession process, a country must first apply and undergo a thorough assessment to receive official candidate status. Subsequently, the EU votes to commence negotiations once it deems that the applicant has implemented sufficient reforms. The negotiation process spans 33 chapters, covering diverse areas such as the judiciary, environment, and even fisheries. Progress on each chapter is evaluated, and upon reaching a satisfactory level of preparation, the chapter is closed. The ultimate goal is for the aspiring member to successfully close all 33 chapters and garner unanimous support from all existing EU members for official accession.


10. Turkey

Despite being the oldest applicant for EU membership, Turkey, which submitted its application in 1987, currently stands as the least probable candidate for accession. The country’s accession negotiations have been at a standstill since 2019. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey has witnessed a notable increase in autocratic tendencies and persistent conflicts with the EU. Erdoğan’s reelection in 2023 further solidifies the bleak prospects for Turkey’s EU membership, as the nation appears to be on a trajectory of democratic decline and continued violations of human rights. The European Parliament’s decision in 2023 not to renew negotiations with Turkey underscores the prevailing sentiment, indicating a lack of optimism for substantial changes in the foreseeable future.


9. Kosovo

Staunchly pro-European and pro-NATO, Kosovo has been very vocal in its intention to join the European Union since it declared independence from Serbia. However, it is currently facing one crucial impediment to EU membership- the absence of recognised statehood. Kosovo is still unrecognised by 91 of the 193 UN-member countries, including 5 EU members. Similarly, it is not an official candidate yet but only an applicant. Despite some reforms implemented in recent years, challenges such as corruption pose significant obstacles that will require an extended period to address comprehensively.


8. Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is the most recent candidate for EU membership, having received candidate status in December 2022. One of the biggest issues with its bid is that it is the least democratic applicant country as per The Democracy Index. The country is made up of 2 entities, each with its own government and legislature. Even more confusingly, the Bosnian presidency is shared by 3 members, each representing a major ethnic group (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats). The structure of its government makes implementing reforms very slow and often leads to paralysis when it comes to important decisions, especially foreign policy ones, as the Serb minority is significantly more pro-Russian than the country as a whole. European Integration would require profound constitutional reform, which seems unlikely in the near future considering the major differences between the 3 ethnic groups living in Bosnia.


7. Georgia

Georgia applied for EU membership in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, alongside Moldova and Ukraine itself, but unlike the 2 aforementioned countries, Georgia was not initially granted candidate status. The EU has expressed concerns regarding the deplorable state of democracy in the country as well as the influence of oligarchs over politics. A popular former president is currently in prison for politically motivated, trumped-up charges while the electoral system makes it hard for non-incumbent countries to gain power. The richest person in the country, Bidzina Ivanishvili is widely believed to be ruling the country behind the scenes, even though he doesn’t hold an official position. Besides the questionable state of democracy, Russia currently occupies 2 of the country’s regions (20% of its territory) as a result of a war in 2008. While the country as a whole is staunchly pro-European, the incumbent government has increasingly been clashing with the EU, worsening relations between the two. In November 2023, Georgia was finally offered candidate status by the EU, but the decision was a reluctant one, and the EU made sure to underscore the fact that many more reforms are needed for negotiations to commence.


6. Serbia

In contrast to other countries on this list, Serbia has initiated negotiations for EU accession, but progress has encountered significant obstacles. Primarily, support for joining the EU has dwindled since the country first applied for candidate status, exacerbated by heightened anti-EU sentiment following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Recent polls indicate a majority opposing EU accession. Serbia’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia, along with providing refuge for Russians evading sanctions, has led to accusations of close ties with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, depicting the country as a quasi-Russian enclave within Europe. While the government asserts that EU accession remains a priority, tangible advancements in addressing corruption and aligning with European standards are notably lacking.

Secondly, the country must resolve its dispute with Kosovo, which it does not recognize as an independent entity but rather as a constituent part of Serbia. Escalating tensions between the two make the prospect of reaching a deal increasingly unlikely.


5. Ukraine

Possibly the most pro-European among the applicant countries, Ukraine faces a daunting challenge in pursuing EU accession due to its ongoing and seemingly unending war. The conflict has not only complicated reform efforts but has also left Ukraine’s economy in a state of disarray, heavily reliant on foreign aid. Despite commendable progress in addressing corruption, given the challenging circumstances, the country still grapples with a noticeable corruption issue.

Complicating matters further, Hungary has voiced concerns about Ukraine’s potential accession, citing historical reasons and alleging mistreatment of the Hungarian minority within Ukraine. The need for unanimous agreement among EU members for a country to join exacerbates the challenges in Ukraine’s path.

Despite these hurdles, the EU has acknowledged Ukraine’s rapid implementation of recent reforms and, voted to initiate negotiations with Ukraine in November 2023, albeit after considerable uncertainty and veto threats.


4. Moldova

Just a few years ago, the idea of placing Moldova high on the list of potential EU accession candidates would have seemed implausible. However, recent years have witnessed Moldova making remarkable progress in implementing reforms. The government has prioritised the execution of all European Commission recommendations, aiming to expedite the accession process. Although Moldova lags behind other applicant countries in terms of progress across the 33 chapters, it has shown the most improvement in the past year, underscoring the government’s unwavering commitment to European integration. Consequently, the EU, recognising Moldova’s advancements and the diminishing influence of Russia in the country, voted to initiate negotiations in November 2023.

Despite these positive developments, Moldova grapples with its most significant challenge: the presence of Russian troops in the breakaway region of Transnistria, a Russian-controlled enclave that self-proclaims as an independent republic. While, theoretically, accession could occur without Transnistria, similar to Cyprus joining despite its territorial dispute with Turkey, the issue remains a prominent concern, alongside the slow pace of addressing corruption.


3. North Macedonia

The remaining three countries on this list hold significantly elevated prospects for EU admission, given their existing NATO membership and the initiation of official EU negotiations. The applications of Albania and North Macedonia are closely intertwined, undergoing joint assessments and receiving candidate status simultaneously. This interconnected evaluation makes it challenging to determine which of the two has a higher likelihood of accession. However, while it is true that Albania’s problems with corruption and organised crime seem a bit more serious than North Macedonia’s at first glance, North Macedonia has faced a lot more hurdles in getting to the status of an applicant country.

North Macedonia’s path involved a crucial name change to resolve a dispute with Greece, which contended that the use of the name “Macedonia” should be exclusive to the Greek region and not the country, accusing it of appropriating symbols and figures with historical ties to Greek culture. Additionally, Bulgaria poses a potential veto threat, asserting that Macedonian is not a distinct language but rather a dialect of Bulgarian. Although temporary resolutions have been achieved, the recurrence of these issues remains uncertain as North Macedonia progresses toward EU accession. Consequently, North Macedonia might encounter a more challenging journey to EU membership compared to its neighbour, Albania.


2. Albania

A major concern in Albania’s admission process is the sluggish pace at which the country is addressing organised crime and corruption. Despite being among the most ardent pro-European voices in the Balkans, surpassing other applicant countries in its commitment to European integration, Albania faces lingering worries about the independence of its judiciary and corruption levels. Prime Minister Edi Rama has been the subject of corruption accusations and embroiled in numerous scandals during his premiership.

However, it’s noteworthy that Albania, a NATO member since 2009, the longest among the countries on this list, has demonstrated the second-best progress in the past year (following Moldova) in implementing the European Commission’s recommendations.


1. Montenegro

Montenegro stands out as the most promising candidate for EU membership and holds the greatest likelihood of joining the Union. With the closure of three out of the 33 negotiating chapters, NATO membership since 2017, and the highest GDP per capita among applicant countries, Montenegro demonstrates significant advancements. Furthermore, its favourable ranking in the Democracy Index, which considers factors like political participation and civil liberties, positions it ahead of its counterparts. Having commenced negotiations in 2012, Montenegro enjoys a substantial lead over other applicants.

However, concerns persist regarding its EU accession. While polls indicate strong support for membership, a notable minority maintains ties to Serbia and is susceptible to Serbian and Russian propaganda. The country has faced criticism for permitting loopholes for sanctioned Russians and approving large infrastructure projects financed by Chinese companies. Additionally, Montenegro has grappled with a period of political instability, having spent over a year without a government with complete support in parliament.


Be careful what you wish for

While the list of potential new members is long, the truth is that none of them look likely to succeed in negotiations in the foreseeable future. Despite a growing appetite for expansion, particularly in the post-COVID-19 years, the EU is unlikely to embrace candidates that do not fully meet the accession criteria. Taking such bets on other Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria has exposed the vulnerabilities of moving too soon on EU membership. After all, there’s a valid argument that since their accession, the countries listed above have been more of a liability than an asset for the Union.