Scoreboard - The true state of accession - What the Commission assessments reveal

17 March 2023
Ukraine's application for EU membership. Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine
Ukraine's application for EU membership. Photo: Office of the President of Ukraine

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Each year the European Commission assesses 33 policy areas – laws, institutions, policy implementation – into which the accession negotiations are divided. It does so for 10 countries which aspire to join the EU. Since 2015, it has established a lot of credibility through its tough, objective assessments.

These assessments concern the heart of Europeanisation. Without being prepared in these sectors/chapters – with laws and institutions in place and a track record of implementation – barriers between the EU Single Market and these countries cannot be lifted. Lifting barriers after successful reforms, on the other hand, has an immediate effect on economies. It boosts investment and drives convergence. Deepening economic and institutional integration based on the rule of law also makes future armed conflicts among countries unthinkable.  

The European Commission published its most recent assessments for the six Western Balkan countries on 12 October 2022. It published its first ever assessments for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia on 1 February 2023. The Commission assesses each policy area (or chapter) using five degrees of preparedness:

Early stage
Some level of preparation
Moderately prepared
Good level of preparation
Well advanced

When analysing and comparing recent assessments, three findings stand out.

First, Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Turkey are ahead of Ukraine and Georgia on their preparedness. Moldova is at about the same level as Bosnia.

Second, countries that have been in this process the longest have slowed down in recent years – and Turkey has gone into reverse. Unless the dynamic changes, no country will reach a good level of preparation in many years. The Commission's assessments show that the current accession process fails to inspire reforms. ESI examined reasons for this – and proposed a way out – in: "The Balkan Turtle Race – A warning for Ukraine."

Third, the crucial focus on rule of law fundamentals, introduced for good reasons many years ago, is failing to deliver results. This is troubling. To join the EU and its Single Market countries must show preparedness on these fundamentals. It is only robust rule of law institutions that ensure that EU standards and the rights of individuals and companies are protected.

What is likely to happen if this process remains unchanged? Alas, seen from today, the answer is obvious: there will be no accession in the next decade.

This would be fatal as a signal to the people of the region. It would be very detrimental to the investments needed to catch up (and reconstruct post-war Ukraine). Barriers between the EU Single Market and these economies would remain in place, making it almost impossible for these countries to do what the Baltic States, Romania, and Poland have done so spectacularly in recent years: catch up and converge.

The Single Market and its rules are the heart of the EU. So is the rule of law. This means that there is no shortcut around meeting these criteria. If some member states would argue that countries should join the EU or its Single Market even without being well prepared, as a political signal, the chance of getting all existing 27 members to agree vanishes. Member states will insist that the EU defends the integrity of its Single Market and the rule of law. Without the conviction in EU capitals that there has been good preparation in countries about to join, from food safety to product standards, from toxic waste management to the functioning of courts, no country will be able to join.

It is sometimes said that the process of EU enlargement needs to be "more political", and not about "ticking bureaucratic boxes." But getting to a state of good preparation in each chapter is not about boxes being ticked but about meeting the standards on which the trust relies that makes removing all barriers between countries and economies possible.