The enlargement of the European Union policy is a key instrument to promote peace, stability, prosperity and security in candidate and potential candidate countries which are in its immediate European neighbourhood. This is all the more so in today’s historical context, that is characterised by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the challenges of economic recovery after the pandemic and the continuing migration crisis.
The accession negotiation follows a specific procedure which is provided for in the Treaties. The application for membership is submitted to the Council; the status of candidate country is granted unanimously by the Council (in General Affairs Council format), on the basis of a recommendation by the Commission, with the endorsement of the European Council.
The granting of candidate status does not necessarily imply the immediate start of accession negotiations, which is decided unanimously by the Member States and takes place on the basis of a negotiating framework adopted (also unanimously) by the Council on a proposal from the Commission.
Negotiations are conducted in Intergovernmental Conferences (IGCs) between the EU Member States and the candidate country, which are the main forum for political dialogue with the candidate country. The negotiations are based on the EU acquis, which is divided into negotiating chapters and – under the new enlargement methodology, adopted in 2020 – into clusters of negotiating chapters. Only after the provisional closure of all chapters is it possible to proceed with the formalisation of an Accession Treaty, which is adopted by the Council, subject to the opinion of the Commission and the European Parliament, and subsequently signed by the candidate country and the representatives of the Member States. Upon completion of the ratification procedures by all Member States, the candidate country becomes a member of the European Union.
Italy has always been committed to supporting the Union’s enlargement strategy. It has engaged in ensuring that the progress made by the candidate and potential candidate countries receive proper recognition, in order to encourage them to advance on their path towards internal reforms that are needed to meet the principles of democracy, protection of human rights and the rule of law on which the Union is based, and to adapt their legislation to the acquis communautaire.
The Russian aggression against Ukraine had profound implications for the enlargement policy. Following the Commission’s opinion on the membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia on June 17, 2022, which had been submitted in the immediate aftermath of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, the European Council of June 23 expressed its support for granting the candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and recognised Georgia’s European prospects. At the same time, the Russian aggression on Ukraine gave renewed priority to the stabilisation of the Western Balkans as a central building block for European security and made it even more urgent to provide new momentum to the accession negotiations with the Western Balkans.
Italy has always fought for the concrete advancement of the European integration of the Western Balkans, which it has constantly considered a geostrategic investment for the EU and the best instrument to allow the effective advancement of the reform path in the region. It is also thanks to Italy’s that – within the Union – there has been awareness that the recognition of candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova and of Georgia’s European prospects shall be accompanied by a parallel acceleration for the Balkans. A concrete consequence of this awareness was the holding of the two Intergovernmental Conferences (IGC) with Albania and North Macedonia on July 19, 2022.
THE EUROPEAN PATH OF THE CANDIDATE, POTENTIAL CANDIDATE AND APPLICANT COUNTRIES
Albania was granted the status of candidate country in 2014. The decision to open accession negotiations had already been taken by the European Council in March 2020. On July 19, 2022, the Intergovernmental Conference with Albania was held, which formally marked the start of negotiations.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia enjoys the status of potential candidate country. It submitted its application for membership in February 2016. In 2019 the Commission adopted its own opinion on the granting of candidate status, which specified the reforms necessary to start accession negotiations (the so-called “transition from Dayton to Brussels”).
Kosovo enjoys the status of potential candidate country. With regard to the European agenda, the priorities for Kosovo are to implement the Stabilisation and Association Agreement signed in April 2016 and to implement the past agreements reached with Belgrade in the framework of the Dialogue facilitated by the EU. Progress along the European path for Kosovo is, in fact, subject to a comprehensive and binding normalisation agreement with Belgrade, pending a strategic discussion on the country.
The country has been a candidate for membership since 2005: the decision to open accession negotiations in March 2020 was followed by the first Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) on July 19, 2022.
Montenegro has enjoyed the status of candidate country since 2010 and started accession negotiations in June 2012. It opened all negotiating chapters, of which three were provisionally closed. Montenegro agreed to have the new enlargement methodology applied to its accession process.
Negotiations with Serbia, a candidate country since 2012, began in January 2014.
To date, its European track has 18 negotiating chapters open (out of 35), two of which are provisionally closed. Serbia has completed the necessary steps for the opening of four additional chapters, which requires the unanimous agreement of the 27 Member States. It agreed to have the new enlargement methodology applied to its accession process.
Accession negotiations with Turkey were launched in October 2005 and 16 chapters have been opened so far. However, the process is currently frozen due to the problematic nature of the internal political situation with regard to the rule of law and fundamental rights. Turkey, however, remains a strategic partner for the EU, particularly as regards cooperation on migration launched on the basis of the joint declaration of March 18, 2016.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia
Ukraine submitted its application for EU membership on February 28, 2022, while Moldova and Georgia submitted their applications on March 3, 2022. The Commission submitted its views on the accession of the three countries on June 17, 2022. On June 23, 2022, the European Council expressed its support for granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, by identifying a number of priorities for both countries in which to make progress for opening accession negotiations. The European Council also recognised Georgia’s European prospects and identified a number of priorities in which to record progress for the granting of candidate status.