The EU as 2016 draws to a close

The EU as 2016 draws to a close

As the year is coming to a close, an interesting analysis recently published on the Politico website gives a vivid picture of the EU’s strategic intention for further enlargement. That is a target that several countries, including Turkey, still aim to reach. 

The article quotes Johannes Hahn, the EU’s commissioner for enlargement, who we often saw in Istanbul at the end of last year during intense negotiations with the government of then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on the refugee issue. Speaking at a Western Balkans summit at the beginning of this month, Hahn openly told participants that the majority of EU countries oppose any further enlargement of the Union.

Of course, this is no news to the citizens of many countries in Europe who support xenophobic populist movements, demanding for “no more foreigners” in the narrowly defined European neighborhood. In the case of the U.K., the “foreigner” was epitomized as the “Polish plumber” and led many Brits to vote back in June in favor of the exit of their country from the EU.

While U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and her team are struggling to find a palatable way to exit the Union without damaging their country’s economy, other countries retain their high appetite for joining the EU. At least on paper they have been preparing for a long time, adjusting their institutions for the day when they will be called in.  

The Western Balkans is such a case. Although traditionally seen by Western Europeans as part of the “eastern,” “ex-Ottoman,” “Christian Orthodox” or “former Soviet bloc” territories, most of these countries have been aspiring to join the European family since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

With the last country to join the EU being Croatia in 2013, there are now five official candidate Western Balkan countries in line to join the EU once their negotiations are completed: Albania, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. Also, there are two potential candidates: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. 

Looking at the analysis of Politico, we see that the chances of these seven countries ever joining the EU differ significantly. On a scale from 0 to 100, it said the country with the most chance is Montenegro, which scored 90 and which is the richest country in the Western Balkans with an application to join NATO almost complete. Montenegro is followed by Albania and Serbia with 80 points, followed by Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republic of Macedonia with 50 points and then by Kosovo with 30 points. 

The article gives a description of each of these countries’ “pros and cons” based on official data. It is particularly interesting that a common negative denominator for all of them is the serious and persistent problem of corruption.  

In this catalogue of countries “racing for EU membership,” there is a special place for Turkey. It is the last country included in the analysis and just a glance at the basic data illustrates the problem in the EU-Turkey relationship.  Under the subheading “Chances for joining,” Turkey is given 0 points!

It used to be relatively simple: According to the rules, any European country that respected the principles of “liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law” could apply and hope to be declared as candidate member.” It could then start accession negotiations to gradually adjust its legislation to fit EU law and subsequently join.  

But the EU technocrats have been now pushed aside. Following major geopolitical changes taking place in Europe’s neighborhood, from Ukraine to the Middle East, political considerations prevail and the political will of powerful European capitals such as Berlin and Paris weigh more heavily than the will of Brussels. The dream of a fully integrated Europe is more remote than ever. The Western Balkan countries are understandingly worried that their dream of joining EU may be open-ended. They warn that Putin’s Russia may move to fill the gap if they are not accepted into the European family. 

In the case of Turkey, its relationship with Brussels is particularly challenging. Both sides have serious reservations about the intentions of the other. But even at this critical moment, the ever-present refugee problem may be a reason to at least keep both of them talking.