What are the chances for Albania and North Macedonia to join the EU

Ups and downs of  enlargement process.

Even though the enlargement was a priority for the German EU Presidency, no progress was reported in the negotiations on the accession of Albania and North Macedonia during the six months of German mandate. On the contrary, on January 1, when Portugal took over the EU Presidency from Germany, the expectations about enlargement were far lower than when its predecessor took this role. [1]

Bulgaria blocked EU ministers’ talks on North Macedonia starting negotiations with the EU in November 2020. Nor Albania has begun its accession negotiations.

These steps back are not the first symptoms of „the enlargement fatigue”, as the experts on European studies labelled it. A year earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron also rejected the formal opening of negotiations on EU membership for these two Balkan countries, sending a warning to the other aspiring candidate countries and the rest of the world that the EU has reached a critical point regarding the enlargement process.

As the UK has agreed to leave the EU, the debate about the limitations of the enlargement mechanism is all the more relevant. Brexit is the first experience for which there is still no specific concept contrary to the term enlargement. But the precedent has been set.

The wave of skepticism regarding the enlargement mechanism has also increased as a result of dissatisfaction of some Western countries with illiberal regimes emerging from Poland and Hungary. At a time when the European Commission is trying to impose a rule of law mechanism for cutting funds to the governments that do not respect the rule of law, do the Balkan countries still have realistic chances of joining the EU?

How the enlargement process started

From a legal approach, the enlargement process was based on a principle written into the Rome treaty of March 25, 1957, Articole 237 – „any European State may apply to become a member of Community”. This paved the way for four consecutive expansions: in 1973, Britain, Denmark and Ireland joined; in 1981, followed by Greece, and by Spain and Portugal in 1986. In 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the newly formed EU, bringing the membership count up to 15 states.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union radically changed Europe’s architecture. Many argue that the center of gravity of the EU has changed far east of Brussels. German chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, declared in an April 1994 speech that „the Baltic Sea is just as much a European one as the Mediterranean”. [2]

As Frank Schimmelfenning and Ulrich Sedelmeier pointed out, „Europe has increasingly come to be defined in terms of the EU; the ‚Europeanization’ or ‚Europeanness’ of individual countries has come to be measured by the intensity of institutional relations with the Community and by the adoption of its organizational norms and rules”. [3]

As a consequence of these geopolitical changes, the biggest challenge of the enlargement movement was by far the accession of other ten Central and Eastern European countries (CEES), most of them with a communist past.

If at the outset, the only criterion for becoming an EU member state was the ‚Europeanness’, since 1992, meetings of the European Council and intergovernmental conferences have added more conditions for these aspirant candidate states. In order to be European, the state must also have a democratic structure in which the rule of law and respect for human rights prevail; it must have a market-based economy; and it must be prepared to accept the acquis communautaire (rights and obligations deriving from EU treaties, laws, and regulations) as it exists at the time of accession; finally, although this is an implied condition, applicants must not pose major distributive or budgetary problems for the EU. [4]

Even when a candidate meets all these criteria, the current member states must still agree unanimously that the EU can absorb the new member.

In 2004, Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia oficially became UE member states. This wave of enlargement, known as “the big bang”, was followed by the lower key accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and of Croatia in 2013.

In the meantime, the EU seems to lose appetite for further enlargement. The former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker himself said further accessions were not on the agenda when he took office in 2014. [5]

During the refugee crisis of 2015-2016, deep East-West tensions arose as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia declined to share the burden of refugees.

How the conflicts developed

However, the chronological presentation of the process could not be a comprehensive one. An assessment of all the successive enlargements could not deeply explained without an analysis of the political conflicts within the UE.

In fact, if we study the history of the European Union enlargement, we can easily notice that every wave of EU expansion has resulted in political tensions and conflicts. Existing members were fearful that their membership rights would decline and  the candidates were unwilling to accept the anticipated membership benefits.

A suitable example for reflecting this kind of confrontation occured in 1963, when  French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Community (EC)—the precursor of today’s European Union (EU). He stated that the terms of Britain joining the Union were unacceptable to France. „In addition to fearing that a rise in Atlanticism would undermine French dominance in Europe, de Gaulle was particularly concerned about the impact British membership would have on the Common Agricultural Policies (CAP). Political tensions arose from opposite interests of French farmers and the British government that sought to protect the interests of European Free Trade Association (EFTA) members, British farmers, and the Commonwealth”, argued Christina J. Schndeider, Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the University of California, San Diego, in her book entitled „Conflict, Negotiation and the European Union Enlargement”. [6]

Another critical moment occured  during the Eastern enlargement, when Germany and Austria became serious obstacles when negotiations on the chapter of the “Free Movement of Labor” opened in 2001. Politicians in both countries insisted that cheap unskilled labor from acceding states would migrate to Western countries and disrupt the domestic labor markets.

„I am certainly aware of the fears and insecurities here in Oberpfalz, but also in other regions which share a border with the acceding states: concerns about the expected migration of workers, but also of commuters, and concerns about a dumping of wages, social regulations, and environmental regulations. . . . You all know about the welfare and wage gap between old and new EU member states. This gap will generate a pressure for migration and adaptation. . . . We would have to deal with enforced immigration if the free movement of workers is granted immediately after enlargement”, claimed the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, at the moment. [7]

Many public figure of these two coutries advocated for imposing restrictions on the free movement of workers, but the majority of EU member goverments did not share this option.

At the Goteburg Summit in June 2001, the EU representives reached a compromise that favored German and Austrian interests. Eight of the ten countries that joined the Union in May 2004 had to accept restrictions on the free movement of workers for up to seven years. Malta and Cyprus were exempt and enjoyed full liberalization of labor markets immediately upon accession.

„To summarize, the negotiations about the Free Movement of Workers show that (a) the widening of the EU often triggers intense domestic debate because the integration of additional states affects national interests; (b) the exposure to adverse consequences from enlargement varies from member state to member state, with some expecting to be relative winners, and others expecting to be relative losers; and (c) states that fear the consequences from enlargement can block the admission of new members until these distributional conflicts are resolved to their satisfaction”, also  Christina J. Schndeider argued in her book.

The talks on the free movement during the Eastern enlargement round proved that the access to European Member State status means both costs and benefits.

The balance between costs and benefits from a theoretical perspective

When it comes to the EU enlargement, scholars typically distinguish between “deepening” and “widening” of the Union. Schimmmelfenning and Sedelmeier define „deepening” as the “process of gradual and formal vertical institutionalisation” in which the EU member states expand the scope of  their common interactions and organizational rules, and increase the  number of policies that are decided on the intergovernmental and supranational level. “Widening” is defined as the “process of gradual and formal horizontal institutionalisation” in which new states accede and adopt the rules and practices of the Union. [8]

At least two types of costs appeared as a consequence of the EU enlargement of: a political cost arising from the decline in state autonomy and the increase in preference heterogeneity and an economic cost arising from the distributional consequences of widening.

Rational-choice theories of EU enlargement usually predict that expansion succeeds when the benefits from admitting new members are higher than the enlargement costs. But this process didn’t happen automatically.

Schndeider argued the assumption that expansion provides net benefits to all EU members is contradicted by the distributional conflicts in the Southern and Eastern enlargement rounds. While this was generally accepted in the fourth expansion to Austria, Sweden, and Finland, it was highly debated whether the two Mediterranean enlargement rounds and the Eastern enlargement did not leave at least some current members worse off. If for some EU members the expected distributional costs would outweigh the expected benefits, then „Eastern enlargement would be rather puzzling”.

Scholars tended to classify countries into supporters and opponents of enlargement depending on how they expect them to fare on the cost-benefit criterion. Traditionally, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom (UK) are considered the main “drivers” of the EU Eastern expansion. Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain, on the other hand, are usually considered the “brakemen” of enlargement[9].

Historically, advanced industrial countries in the EU have been much more supportive of enlargement than countries with large and inefficient agricultural sectors. The latter seem to have been much more concerned about the possible loss of EU transfers than about potential costs from having to adjust to more intense economic competition or from losing political leverage in EU decision-making. Schimmelfenning and Sedelmeier argued that EU Eastern enlargement “threatens to create particularly high costs for poorer, less developed and more agricultural members” .

What are the chances for Albania and Northern Macedonia to join the EU

Albania and North Macedonia have sought accession to EU membership since 2009 and 2004 respectively. EU Member States unanimously agreed to grant candidate status to Albania in 2014 and to North Macedonia in 2005.  As we can easily notice, the enlargement process for the Balkan countries is more difficult even than it has been for Central and Eastern European countries. Many Western countries claim that these countries are not prepared for making this important step because of their violent recent history.

“Before any effective enlargement, we have to know how to reform ourselves,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in October 2019, adding that, “if there is not a moment of collective awakening, we cannot bring in other members, even in five or ten years.” [10]

Although French skepticism related to a new wave of the enlargement was as explicit as possible, in March 2020, the EU gave the green light to the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania, and also introduced a new reformed „accession talks” framework. The strengthening of the rule of law, fighting corruption and organised crime are the cornerstones of the EU-Western Balkans strategy of 2018 and the new accession talks framework of 2020.

On the other hand, Brexit had also a positive effect on the European Commission, bringing new perspectives on enlargement. In the hope of keeping the EU project alive, the Commission began to re-engage in its enlargement policy and in the 2017 State of the Union adress, the former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the Western Balkans should become future members of the EU. [11]

At that time, Junker said that Albania and North Macedonia could become member states by 2025, but this now seems an unrealistic prediction.

During this enlargement round, Bulgaria is the EU state that strongly opposes the join of Northern Macedonia in the EU. The Bulgarian government issued a unilateral statement that was annexed to the March Council conclusions. It included an acknowledgment by North Macedonia that its language had Bulgarian origins, and that before 1944 there was no ‘Macedonian language’ or ethnicity. It also called for an end to what it called „state-sponsored anti-Bulgarian ideology,” as well as for the renunciation of any claims to the „existence of a Macedonian minority” in Bulgaria, and for a one-sided view of the history of the region to be represented.[12] It is still difficult to predict how EU countries will be able to resolve this new conflict.

Given that the European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, wants to strengthen the rule of law requirements for all the European member states, it is also difficult to predict when Albania and Northern Macedonia will be able to implement all the judicial reforms  in order to adopt the acquis. Futhermore, the current pandemic may change the priorities for the EU, making it very likely that the internal EU consolidation will become more pressing than futher enlargement.


  1. „Germany’s EU Presidency was a failure on enlargement, but not through its own fault”, www.theeuropeanwesternbalkan.com, 22.01.2021
  1. Encyclopedia of the European Union, 1998th Edition, edited by Desmond Dinan, Palgrave Publicher, page 166.
  2. Theorizing EU enlargement: research focus, hypotheses, and the state of research”, Frank Schimmelfenning&Ulrich Sedelmeier, Journal of European Public Policy, 04 feb. 2011.
  3. Encyclopedia of the European Union, 1998th Edition, edited by Desmond Dinan, Palgrave Publicher, page 166.
  1.  „Juncker looks back on 15 years of ‘big bang’ EU enlargement”, www.euractiv.com, 29 Apr 2019
  2. Conflict, Negotiation and the European Union Enlargement”, Chiristina J. Schndeider, Cambridge University Press, 2008, page 1.
  3. [1] Item, page 25.
  4. Theorizing EU enlargement: research focus, hypotheses, and the state of research”, Frank Schimmelfenning&Ulrich Sedelmeier, Journal of European Public Policy, 04 feb. 2011.
  5. Conflict, Negotiation and the European Union Enlargement”, Chiristina J. Schndeider, Cambridge University Press, 2008, page 49.
  6. „EU Has Turned Enlargement into a Hamster Wheel”, balkanicinsight.com, January 21, 2020.
  7. The EU Rule of Law Initiative Towards the Western Balkans, link.springer,com, November 18, 2020.
  8. „The EU’s enlargement agenda is no longer fit for purpose”, www. ceps.eu, 26 Jan 2021


  1. Encyclopedia of the European Union, 1998th Edition, edited by Desmond Dinan, Palgrave Publicher, page 166.
  2. Theorizing EU enlargement: research focus, hypotheses, and the state of research”, Frank Schimmelfenning&Ulrich Sedelmeier, Journal of European Public Policy, 04 feb. 2011.
  3. Conflict, Negotiation and the European Union Enlargement”, Chiristina J. Schndeider, Cambridge University Press, 2008



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