Future enlargement of the European Union through the admission of new members has proven a contentious issue in the referendum campaign — particularly surrounding the application of Turkey to join, with its large population.

There are currently five candidate countries for membership of the union, all of which are at different stages of their application, as well as one applicant country and one potential applicant. We can use the stages these countries are at in their applications and their relative speed to give a rough estimate of when, and indeed if, these countries will join the European Union.

Before looking at the individual countries, it is important to note that the current president of the European Commission has said that there will be no enlargement during the term of the current Commission, due to expire in 2019. It is also important to remember that each country has a veto on new members as each new member needs to sign up to what is called an “Accession Treaty” to which all current member states must agree.

EU Enlargement candidates
The EU here is marked in dark green, with candidates to join marked in the following colours: Turkey is brown; Macedonia is blue; Albania is pink; Montenegro is purple; Serbia is red; Bosnia-Herzegovina is lime green and Montenegro is orange.

Turkey’s application for membership is by far the most controversial, having applied for membership in 1987, Turkey’s membership big has progressed at a rate that if it were any slower it would actually be going backwards. Since Turkey’s original application, the Iron Curtain has fallen and no fewer than sixteen countries have applied for EU membership and become full members — Finland’s taking just five years from start to its Finnish (if you’ll pardon the pun) in 1995, a full four years before Turkey was even given official candidate status.

It was in 2005 that the full negotiations finally began, nearly twenty years after the initial application was submitted, and since then progress has been just as slow. In order to join the EU, countries need to have successfully implemented 33 areas of policy so that their national law is in line with that of the EU. Since 2005, the negotiations have been successful on just one of these 33 areas. A lot of this is down to the Turkish government being slow in making the necessary changes, but is also down to the reluctance of certain member states to accept Turkey to the EU, most notably Cyprus.

Some people reading this website will remember the Turkish invasion of Northern Cyprus in 1974, whereby Turkey occupied the northern third of the island which is now the “independent” Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. This country is recognised as independent only by Turkey, whilst the rest of the world considers Turkey an occupying force in Cyprus — it’s not too dissimilar to the situation in Crimea. Turkey currently prevents Southern Cypriot ships and planes using its ports and airspace, which would be illegal under EU law — this has resulted in Cyprus vetoing the opening of talks in six of the 33 areas. Greece would also be unlikely to support Turkish membership as it has a position of supporting Cyprus in this dispute. Turkey’s government itself has stated that if Turkey were forced to choose between EU membership and Turkish Cypriots, then they would always choose the Turkish Cypriots.

Other countries hostile to Turkish membership include France and Germany, this is for various reasons such as Turkey’s large population or concerns over Turkey’s population being predominantly muslim joining a primarily Christian Europe. Given that no member has eve taken this long negotiating membership, it is tricky to give an estimate as to when Turkey may join the EU, added to that it is doubtful whether Turkey will ever be able to join given the opposition.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, in addition to being arguably the most oddly named country in Europe, submitted its membership application in 2004 and received candidate status just over a year later. Since then, their application has kind of “Turkeyed” and gone nowhere, there’s not even a date set for the start of negotiations. Considering Macedonia’s situation is somewhat similar to that of Croatia, we could assume that were negotiations to begin in 2017, it would take a similar amount of time for Macedonia to join the EU, giving them a joining date of no sooner than 2025. 

Macedonia’s situation is further complicated by what is ultimately a rather silly naming dispute with Greece, because Macedonia shares its name with a province of Greece, which Greece isn’t happy about. Wikipedia has somehow managed to stretch out this “dispute” to an entire article, even though the current dispute seems to centre on Greece wanting Macedonia to be called “Republic of Upper Macedonia” whilst Macedonia itself prefers “Upper Republic of Macedonia” — it’s that silly, but considering Greece have a veto on new members it could ultimately scupper their membership bid.

Albania’s situation is much simpler — they applied for membership in 2009, and were granted candidate status in 2014; no date has yet been set for negotiations to begin, but it is likely that this will happen later this year. Albania has no disputes with EU members like Turkey and Macedonia, and its situation in relation to EU law is similar to Bulgaria’s, which took seven years to join the EU from the start of negotiations — therefore should negotiations begin this year or next, Albania could be an EU member around 2025.

It says a lot about Turkey’s membership application that Montenegro, a country which only became independent in 2006, is further along in its own negotiations. Montenegro applied for membership in 2008, then had a two year gap before becoming a candidate and another before negotiations began in 2012. Like Albania, Montenegro faces no large barriers in its bid to become  an EU member, and as such should expect a relatively simple path to membership. Based on speeds of previous negotiations, Montenegro could be ready to be an EU member by 2019 — but the EU has said that this won’t happen this far, so depending on the make up of the Commission after the 2019 elections Montenegro would looking at a date of 2021 or later to join (assuming the current Commission won’t finalise papers for a membership during its term).

Serbia has already got rid of the main obstacle to its membership, singing an agreement with the breakaway province of Kosovo and the EU which means they can both apply for membership separately, putting their differences aside — take note Greece and Macedonia. Serbia’s negotiations began in 2014, and shouldn’t take too long to complete — their membership may be delayed by the current Commission’s stance on enlargement, much like Montenegro. It would therefore be unwise to suggest that Serbia could join before 2021.

The remaining two countries are Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Bosnia-Herzegovina applied for membership in February of this year and having not yet undergone screening to see how far it is from EU law, it is impossible to give a potential joining date. Kosovo has not yet submitted a membership application, but is expected to in the near future. Kosovo’s main issue is that it is not recognised by five of the EU members, but it remains to be seen how much of a problem this will cause for negotiations.

For those concerned about Freedom of Movement from new members, the government at the time has the right to limit Freedom of Movement from new members up to a total of seven years after their joining the European Union — for example, the UK is one of just five members which still imposes restrictions on Croatian citizens following their successful joining in 2013, and can up to 2020.