In the current situation you could be forgiven for thinking that EU enlargement is off the cards. It is true, as countries like Serbia and Turkey are both considering their options. For Serbia, the Euro crisis has made the EU lose its shine and many in Turkey are wondering whether their long held ambition to join is worth it, considering how strong the country is at the moment. But not is all that it seems.
In the previous week, two more nations look set to join the club, as tiny Montenegro and troubled Iceland got a step closer. Montenegro got the green light to join accession talks and will begin formal negotiations with Brussels this year. It will be a long road as the EU has gone on record saying Montenegro has a lot to do before it can join the union. Corruption is endemic at all levels of the government and crime, especially organised crime, is rampant.
Montenegro is a new state. A tiny country to the south-west of Serbia, it became independent in 2006. It has a significant amount of catching-up to do, with tourism the only significant foreign investment. The population is small and the country will undoubtedly get huge amounts of EU regional development funds to assist in its growth. As well as this direct investment and the benefits of free trade, it will be able to harmonise its notoriously high trade deficit and develop the capital Podgorica into a more welcoming business-friendly city. For the rest of Europe, Montenegro and Balkan accession in general will create stable markets for goods and a new destination to visit.
Before it gets its wish, Montenegro will have to prove to the other member states that they truly have the values of the other, with Transparency International expressing doubts about judicial independence and fundamental human rights – all key elements under both the European Convention on Human Rights and Chapters 23 and 24 of the accession acquis, which relate to governance. These chapters were added in after Bulgaria’s accession, where they met the criteria yet had the same mafia and corruption issues faced by Montenegro. Currently it meets only a few of the basic criteria to allow membership and the government has to show supreme amounts of political will to overcome these barriers. Many in Montenegro want the accession. With the economic benefits membership would bring, it would restore order to society and reduce corruption. Even the promise of talks will assist with the fight against corruption and volatility.
“Montenegro already did a lot. But much more still needs to be done. This next phase … will mean even more work in more areas, with continued focus on fundamental freedoms and judiciary,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said.
This will be an interesting set of discussions, as along with Croatia, the EU will want to make sure any acceding country is as strong as possible to avoid the crisis we’re having now. There is a feeling in the Balkans of indirect racism and an idea exists that South-Eastern states are corrupt power-vacuums. Yet in the past, the Commission has been very open to enlargement, producing videos and trying to get Europeans to understand the different national cultures and histories and to combat stereotypes. They are even sponsoring young Europeans to go on a road trip across several of the Balkan states to see what it’s like out there.
Away from the Balkans, Iceland had its third meeting recently and wants to push for a 2014 date for accession. This will undoubtedly get mixed receptions concerning the role Icelandic banks had in the financial crisis. However, this is a highly-developed country that already meets all of the non-financial criteria (which most existing EU states would currently fail); therefore granting accession would just be formalising something which is already working in practice.
As the Euro crisis rumbles on and politicians more openly talk about ‘more Europe’ it is encouraging to see there is still faith in the institutions and a collective feeling of wanting to be in the tent.