'We all win': Which countries could join an expanded EU and when?

Claudia Delpero, Europe Street
Claudia Delpero, Europe Street - [email protected]
'We all win': Which countries could join an expanded EU and when?
An activist waves the Ukrainian national flag and the European Union flag in Berlin. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP

The European Union has ambitious plans to expand beyond the current 27 nations but which countries are in line to join and when could the big EU enlargement happen?


Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia rushed to apply to join the European Union in 2022, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Wednesday, the European Commission recommended to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova and to grant ‘candidate status’ to Georgia. Leaders of EU countries have to endorse such proposals.

But these are initial steps in a long and complex process.

When will these countries be able to join and which other states are in line to enter the EU?

Ten applicants

Ten countries have applied to join the EU, which currently counts 27 members. Each year the European Commission assesses their progress and makes recommendations on the follow up.

On Wednesday, the Commission recommended opening accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, as long as they complete reforms on anti-corruption policies, address the influence of oligarchs and ensure the rights of minorities.

For Georgia, the Commission recommended to grant ‘candidate status’ with more areas to be addressed before accession negotiations.


Leaders of EU countries will have to decide whether they back the recommendations at a summit in December and Hungary and Slovakia are reported to be reluctant.

The other countries that applied to join the EU are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Turkey.

Their progress in negotiations depend on several reforms, the Commission said. These concern the rule of law for Montenegro; the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organised crime as well as public administration for North Macedonia; freedom of expression, minority issues, property rights, the fight against corruption and organised crime for Albania.

For Serbia, there are issues about the independence of the judiciary and the media and the alignment on foreign policy, especially regarding Russia. Strained relations between Serbia and Kosovo (not yet a candidate country) are a major obstacle for both to join.

This year the Commission recommended the opening of talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina “once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved”. This includes reforming the justice system and ensuring “equal rights for all citizens” as ethnic divisions remain in the country. “


Talks with Turkey, which applied to join in 2005, have long been frozen due to concerns about the rule of law, human rights and the “democratic backsliding.”

How EU enlargement works

Countries that apply to join the EU are required to align with EU principles and legislation, which usually involves carrying out reforms in political, administrative, economic and social areas.

After a country submits an application to the EU Council (EU member states), the Commission issues an opinion and on that basis EU countries decide unanimously whether to grant candidate status. After initial conditions are met, EU member states, again unanimously, agree to open the accession negotiations.

The Commission then proposes a framework for talks that EU member states have to agree upon. During negotiations, countries prepare to adopt EU laws and standards in areas such as the single market (including free movement of people), the economy, the environment, transport, agriculture and external relations.

The Commission then gives its opinion on whether the countries are ready to join and EU member states decide by unanimity to close talks. The European Parliament must also give its consent before EU and candidate countries sign and ratify an Accession Treaty.


“Enlargement is a vital policy for the European Union," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.

"Completing our Union is the call of history, the natural horizon of our Union. It also has a strong economic and geopolitical logic. Past enlargements have shown the enormous benefits both for the accession countries and the EU. We all win."

When will the next EU enlargement be?

There aren’t deadlines to complete accession talks. However, EU Council President Charles Michel said in a speech in August: “I believe we must be ready - on both sides - by 2030 to enlarge… This is ambitious, but necessary.”

Which countries will be able to join by then is unclear. Political stability is a key requirement to become part of the EU and countries at war cannot join. In 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the opening of accession talks with Western Balkan countries arguing that, to be able to work, the EU had to reform before another enlargement.

Last week at a conference in Berlin Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “The consensus within the EU now is that we need to enlarge our EU. That’s the geopolitical consequence of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. But an enlarged EU will only be stronger if we do what we have long hesitated to do, namely revise the way our union functions”.

She said EU countries should be able to take decisions by qualified majority, instead of unanimity, “in more areas – from financial issues to external affairs”. “It’s simple political mathematics that, in an EU with 36 vetoes, the risk of obstruction will at some point become ungovernable,” Baerbock argued.

Another solution, recently proposed in a paper commissioned by the German and French government to a working group of experts would be an EU by tiers, with a first tier of ‘associated’ members that would include EEA countries (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), Switzerland or even the UK.



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