Europe Without Barriers 2025: How to break the deadlock on the EU accession path

For a number of years, the path to EU membership has apppeared blocked or exceedingly long and tedious for prospective member states pursuing a „European path“. In fact, in many member states there is an understanding that the accession of Croatia was the last in the short- to mid-term at least and the current EU Commission does not expect any further accession during its mandate, i.e. until the end of the decade.

So even tiny and furthest along in the negotiations Montenegro cannot expect to get anywhere near joining the EU until after 2020, not to mention the likes of Turkey, Ukraine and Moldova. And as the example of Turkey shows, putting off (prospective) candidates for too long can lead to countries turning away from Europe and looking elsewhere for strategic partners. And a vague perspective 25 years down the road is next to an impossible sell for just about any politician.

At the same time, current member states have legitimate concerns that the EU first needs to be reformed, multiple crises managed and Brexit/Grexit averted before the topic of EU enlargement can get back on the agenda. In the absence of strong leadership and a vision for the future of Europe, the result is deadlock in the EU enlargement agenda. This is most visible in the fact that even after the EuroMaidan revolution under EU flags and a pro-European reformist government in place, the EU still cannot bring itself to officially and explicitly declare that Ukraine has a clear membership perspective.

Apart from free trade agreements and visa facilitation, there seems to be no real offer on the table for Western Balkans countries outside the current enlargement agenda, willing Eastern Partnership states like Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia and Turkey. The divergence of expectations between the EU and these countries is currently producing serial disappointments, misunderstandings and frustrations to the detriment of future peace and stability in Europe.

Breaking the deadlock

In order to get out of the vicious circle of a paralyzed enlargement process, what is needed is an intermediate step in between free trade agreements/visa-free travel and full membership. This intermediate step should be EFTA membership. By turning EFTA into an important intermediate step on the path to membership, Europe could extend most of the 4 freedoms (labor, services, goods and capital) throughout all of Europe including the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership and Turkey within 10 years and thus create a Europe without Barriers by 2025.

Bosnians, Turks and Ukrainians will certainly find it much more appealing to wait for full membership while enjoying the same rights in the EU as Norwegian citizens.