The enlargement policy is aimed at achieving a gradual widening of the European Union, through a process whereby European countries that share its principles and objectives join the Union. The enlargement policy is a key instrument for the Union to use 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 true in today’s historical context, that is characterised by an unprecedented migration crisis, a protracted economic crisis and persistent situations of instability on the borders of Europe.
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 enlargement policy includes measures designed to promote the institutional growth of the Western Balkan countries, which are potential candidates to join the Union, and the establishment of a negotiation process agreed between the EU and the candidate countries, which are sufficiently ready to negotiate their membership.
The accession negotiation follows a specific procedure which is provided for in the Treaties. In order to be able to join the European Union, after the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) has been signed and has come into force, and the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) has been activated, the potential candidate country submits its application to the European Council. The status of candidate country is granted by the General Affairs Council on the basis of a recommendation by the Commission with the favourable opinion of all Member States. The formal opening of the accession negotiations follows, with intergovernmental conferences on each of the 35 negotiating chapters. Once negotiations on all the provisional chapters have been completed, based on a recommendation from the Commission on the state of alignment of the candidate country, the Council decides that the negotiations have been completed and proposes the signing of the Accession Treaty. The end of the accession negotiations is formalised during an Intergovernmental Conference and the accession treaty is then 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. At the end of the ratification procedures by all the Member States, the candidate country becomes a member of the European Union.
In 2017, the EU succeeded in maintaining the focus on the enlargement process, keeping up the momentum in 2018 with the publication on 6 February of the Commission's Enlargement Process Strategy ("A credible enlargement perspective for, and enhanced EU engagement with, the Western Balkans"), which included several Italian proposals, expressing a strong regional approach aimed at revitalising the enlargement process, as an inescapable geo-strategic investment and mutual interest of both Brussels and the Balkans.
By the end of its mandate, in 2019, the Commission hopes to achieve "irreversible progress" in the European Balkan process by: i) injecting new dynamism into the accession negotiations process with the two front runners - Montenegro and Serbia; ii) starting accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia; iii) achieving decisive progress towards candidate country status for Bosnia and Herzegovina and finally, iv) attempting to provide a clearer perspective on the European path for Kosovo.
THE EUROPEAN PATH OF THE CANDIDATE AND POTENTIAL CANDIDATE COUNTRIES
Montenegro is the country that is most fervently engaged in the accession process and is expected to join the EU by 2025, as envisaged by the Commission in the Enlargement Policy Strategy published in February 2018. Since the start of negotiations, in 2012, 30 negotiating chapters have been opened, of which 3 have been provisionally closed. Both the high level of regional cooperation and full alignment with EU positions in the CFSP context are positive factors, although some critical issues remain in the field of the rule of law. Podgorica must focus in particular on strengthening its track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime while pursuing reforms to protect media freedom.
Negotiations with Serbia, a candidate country since 2012, began in January 2014. Thanks to progress achieved in the reform process, 12 negotiating chapters have been opened so far (2 of them provisionally closed), including the fundamental chapters 23 and 24 relating to the rule of law, the judiciary and fundamental rights. Under the Enlargement Strategy published in February 2018, the Commission expects the country to join the EU by 2025, but this is subject to progress being achieved in these chapters and to the outcome of the normalisation process with Pristina.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
The resolution of the political crisis in 2017 and the commitment to reforms of the new government (resumption of reforms aimed at joining the EU and the NATO, signing of the Treaty of Good Neighbourship with Bulgaria on 1 August 2017, relaunching the dialogue with Athens to settle the name dispute) have enabled the Commission to express a positive recommendation to open accession negotiations with the Foremer Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a candidate country since 2005. Hopefully, the reforms the country has set in motion and the settlement of the name dispute will enable the Council to greenlight the formal opening of negotiations as soon as possible.
Albania was granted the status of candidate country in 2014. The Commission recently issued a positive recommendation to start accession negotiations, in recognition of the results achieved in the reform process conducted by Tirana in the five priority areas (justice reform, with the start of the vetting process; public administration reform; fight against corruption; fight against organised crime; protection of fundamental rights). Therefore it is hoped that the Council will be in a position to approve the formal opening of accession negotiations as soon as possible.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina relaunched with great determination its path towards accession in 2014 with the adoption of a new EU strategy centered on socio-economic reforms and the full entry into force, in June 2015, of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. It was followed by the application for candidate country status submitted in February 2016. The Commission will have to express its Opinion on the application. The Opinion will be based on the answers to a questionnaire on political and economic criteria and adaptation to the Community acquis, delivered by the country's authorities to the Commission in February 2018.
With regard to the European agenda, the priorities for Kosovo are to implement the Stabilisation and Association Agreement signed in April 2016, to establish an adequate track record in the fight against corruption and organised crime, which is the last requirement to be met in order to achieve Schengen visa liberalisation (following the ratification, in March 2018, of a border agreement with Montenegro), as well as to implement the past agreements with Belgrade in the framework of the Dialogue facilitated by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. Progress along the European path for Pristina is subject to a comprehensive and binding normalisation agreement with Belgrade, pending a strategic discussion on the country.
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 critical nature of the internal political situation with regard to the rule of law and fundamental rights. However, Ankara remains a strategic partner, particularly as regards cooperation on migration launched on the basis of the joint declaration of 18 March 2016, which allowed the creation of a facility dedicated to providing assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey (the Facility for Refugees in Turkey). A review of the customs agreement currently in force is currently in its infancy, while, as regards the visa liberalisation process, Turkey has not fully met yet 7 parameters.