The EU has a significant measure of influence on the accession countries only as long as they remain candidates. The case of the Balkan states is more problematic than the one for Central Europe before 2004.

Since 2004, the EU has grown from 15 to 27 member states. Whilst the EU boundaries, geopolitics and internal cohesion have all changed dramatically, the internal organisation of the EU has barely reformed failing to adapt to the challenge of an increased and diverse membership.

In the meantime, the EU has been plagued by major crises: including the global economic slump in 2008, the eurozone sovereign debt crises in 2010-2012, the refugee crisis in 2015 and most recently the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which will inevitably produce a major economic recession in the entire EU.

The challenge of enlargement coupled with economic woes and the challenge of migration and asylum have contributed to the rise of Eurosceptic parties, which have grown in popularity in most if not all of EU member states and which are threatening to derail the entire project of European integration.

The EU is currently engaged in accession negotiations with five candidate states: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. The country of Bosnia and Herzegovina has also applied but has not been granted the candidate status yet. Kosovo is another potential candidate. The accession machinery is moving again with the next expansion possible in three to five years’ time.

Meanwhile, there is little reflection on the impact the past enlargements have had on the EU and the new member states. The enlargements that were launched 16 years ago expanded the size of the EU market and have benefited the EU and the new member states economically. However, these enlargements have failed to consolidate democracy in new member states and they weakened EU internal cohesion.

There is little reason to believe that the enlargement to Western Balkan states would avoid these mistakes. Moreover, if the EU fails to consolidate and reform prior to expanding to the Western Balkan states, it risks a decision-making paralyses and eventually even a breakup.

Why did the EU enlarge to the former communist states?

2004 EU Enlargement

There have been two major types of rationale for pursuing past enlargements to former communist states. Firstly and most importantly, EU membership has been seen as the most effective transformative tool for stabilising EU immediate neighbourhood, which would benefit both the EU and the candidate countries.

Secondly, the enlargements expanded the size of the single market and opened business opportunities for both the EU and new member states.

The economic argument has indeed been largely fulfilled, although, not everyone in the EU would agree. After all, practically all the new member states are net beneficiaries from the EU budget (they pay less than they receive) and many in the older EU complained that businesses have relocated to the new member states where labour costs are cheaper and social standards are more favourable for the employers.

However, the size of the EU market expanded to another 100 million consumers eager to catch up with the Western living standards. The economies of new member states grew faster than the rest of the EU; 9 out of 12 fastest-growing member states were from the region in 2019. The richer part of the EU has been paying more to the EU budget but in return, it has been benefiting from access to the new and dynamic markets in Central Europe.

Poland, for example, has taken over the UK and Italy as one of Germany’s primary trade markets. The economies of Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia are intimately linked to the German production lines, which benefit from access to qualified and less expensive labour forces. By and large, the economic balance sheet of the post-2004 enlargements has so far been positive for both the new member states and the rest of the EU.  The argument is less convincing in other areas.

Most importantly, the enlargements failed to solidify transitions to stable and functioning democracies in most of the new member states.  In fact, the opposite happened. Today most of the new member states (with the Baltic States making the exception) have worse democracy and rule of law standards than they had at the time of their accession.

Hungary, considered at the time of joining the EU one of the star-performers, is no longer viewed as a functioning democracy. After destroying the independence of the judiciary and free media the government of Viktor Orbán rules from 2016 through the constant state of emergencies with the parliament effectively reduced to rubber-stamping the government’s decisions. The rule of law is also in dramatic regress in Poland.

In Romania, it was always weak and today it is even weaker whilst corruption levels are rampant.  There has practically never been a functioning rule of law in Bulgaria, which in the meantime became a mafia-ruled state.

Czechia, Slovakia and Slovenia have all experienced major spikes in corruption levels. The three Baltic States have managed to budge this negative trend and maintained a good level of democratic institutions.

However, in other cases of ex-communist states, since they became EU member states their transitions to democracy have not progressed and in most cases, they have actually regressed, with Hungary being the most alarming example.

No longer any direct leverage

Copenhagen Council 1993

Why has this happened? As long as the candidates were in the waiting room they were on their best behaviour.

First, they had to meet the Copenhagen criteria to be even recognised as candidates and start accession negotiations. Following the conclusions of the Copenhagen European Council in 1993, potential candidates had to demonstrate that they ‘achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union’.

The European Commission was then charged with producing its assessment on each of the applicants and the European Council was eventually making a decision with which countries to start negotiations.

Once the negotiations started the European Commission had direct leverage on the candidates, who had to fulfil conditions in most areas of public governance, including single market regulations, education, fight against corruption and even foreign and security policy.

Negotiations with the ten countries that joined in 2004 lasted six to seven years (depending on the candidate), during which time the EU indeed had a major influence on the shape of domestic reforms and transformation of the candidate countries. Since the goal of joining the EU was genuinely popular amongst the candidates so was the level of determination to comply with the conditions set by the European Commission. Non-compliance meant delay whilst satisfying the Commission’s demands was nearing the membership goal.

However, the conditionality argument disappeared as soon as those countries joined the EU. Today, when the Commission is trying to discipline Poland or Hungary for undermining the rule of law, it finds that it is largely powerless.

Theoretically, Poland and Hungary may be threatened by sanctions (under the art. 7 procedure of the Lisbon Treaty) but only if all other member states agree, which is extremely unlikely.

In reality, therefore, once the accession process is completed the EU transformative power became more or less redundant. Moreover, at the same time, EU funds are starting to flow in, which may be used to prop up corrupt leadership as has been the case in Hungary and Bulgaria.  Would this be any different with the next wave of enlargement to Western Balkans?

Enlargement to the Western Balkans?

 The EU has opened membership negotiations with four Western Balkan states (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) and Turkey. The negotiations with Turkey have been stalled and are extremely unlikely to be reopened. However, the negotiations with the four Balkan states are real and may produce another enlargement in three to five years’ time. Why has the EU agreed to launch accession negotiations with this group of states?

The economic argument gives no answer. The combined economies of the four states account for just 83 billion dollars, which is little more than the economy of Luxembourg, therefore, rendering it insignificant in the EU context. Moreover, all of the candidates are significantly poorer than the poorest current member of the EU, which is Bulgaria.

In other words, the only economic consequence of this enlargement would be a redirection of EU funds to the Balkans with little gains in the form of market expansion.

Clearly, the key rationale for pursuing this enlargement has been political and linked to the strong belief in the EU transformative powers. It appears however that the EU drew no lessons from the failure of its transformative agenda towards ex-communist states of Central Europe. By starting the actual membership negotiations the EU must have recognised that the four Balkan states fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria.

In other words that these states are functioning democracies with a free market and the rule of law. It remains a mystery what methodology did the EU use to arrive at this conclusion. For example, the Freedom House Democracy Index for 2020 does not recognise a single state from this group as a functioning democracy and none of them is classified as ‘free’.

According to Transparency International, the four states have a very high level of corruption. The very concept of the rule of law remains a fantasy in Albania or Serbia. Still, the EU has ruled that these conditions have been met and the negotiations can be launched.

Hence it seems that the most powerful reason for pursuing this enlargement is a desire to avoid another war in the Balkans. Indeed, the promise of EU membership has pacified tensions in the Balkans – the region, which was torn by violent wars in the 1990s. The EU has acted as a successful peace-building project since the 1950s and there is reason to believe that it contributed to the preservation of peace in the Balkans.

However, as the case of the enlargement to Central Europe demonstrated the EU has a significant measure of influence on the accession countries only as long as they remain candidates.  The case of the Balkan states is even more problematic and their level of motivation for pursuing domestic reforms is weak even now when the EU is still armed in instruments of direct conditionality.

Whilst the EU should not reject the membership option for the Balkan states it is essential that the process is not rushed and that thorough changes to the enlargement process are introduced, mostly with the view of preserving the conditionality option after the enlargement.


  • The EU should not rush the enlargement negotiations and it should have an option to return obvious laggards to the pre-negotiations stage. For example, any obvious disregard for the rule of law should immediately lead to an end of negotiations with the violating candidate.
  • The EU should link the distribution of its funds to the respect of the rule of law and democracy standards of its members. The Commissioner for Values and the Rule of Law should have competencies to recommend a suspension of transfers for violating member state and the procedure for implementing such a suspension should be simplified.
  • The treaties of the EU must be modified to allow for a simplified procedure of suspension of membership rights. The states that violate the rule of law and undermine their democratic institutions must be faced with the credible threat of costs and consequences of their actions. The unanimity rule must be dropped in this case and be replaced by a simple majority voting.
  • The EU should not agree to another enlargement round without introducing clear mechanisms of conditionality for new member states, which would remain in place after their accession.



This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow and Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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