While Brexit continues to overshadow most of the EU’s activities, we must not forget that the EU is also engaged in an enlargement process. Inspired by its founding principles, the EU believes that an enlargement policy is a geo-strategic investment in peace, stability, security and economic growth within the whole of Europe. Preparing candidate countries to meet all membership requirements continues to be one of the EU’s key political priorities.

Six waves of enlargement, beginning in 1973 with the accession of Denmark, Ireland and the UK, have increased the number of the EU member states from six to 28. The latest country to join was Croatia in 2013. There are currently seven countries involved in the accession process. Negotiations have started with Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey, while Albania and North Macedonia are awaiting the green light from the European Council to open negotiations. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have been designated as potential candidates and promised the prospect of membership.

The Treaty of the European Union (TEU) provides that any European country that respects the values of the Union, and is committed to them, can apply for membership. Among these values are respect for human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. Also entrenched in the treaty are respect for a pluralistic society and for the rights of minorities, including non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men.

In addition, a candidate country must satisfy the eligibility criteria, which are commonly known as the Copenhagen criteria, defined by the European Council in 1993. These are: having stable institutions, a functioning market economy and the ability to implement the obligations of membership.

The path to membership begins with a formal application to the Council of the European Union. The country is granted candidate status following a favourable opinion by the Commission and endorsement by the European Council. Negotiations can only be opened by a European Council unanimous decision.

The aim of accession negotiations is to help candidate countries prepare to fulfil the obligations of membership, and to ensure compliance with the body of rights and obligations binding all EU member states, known as the acquis. The acquis is currently divided in 35 policy areas or chapters. Each chapter is individually opened, negotiated and provisionally closed, on the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

The ultimate aim of accession negotiations is to prepare the accession treaty. This must be approved unanimously by the Council and receive the consent of the EP. The treaty is then signed and ratified by each EU member state and by the acceding country.

During the pre-accession phase the Commission monitors the candidate country’s efforts to implement the acquis and provides assistance through various pre-accession funding instruments.

The last meeting of the European Council, on October 17 and 18, upon the insistence of a few member states, blocked the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Many member states, including Malta, regret this decision and are looking forward to its reversal at the EU-Western Balkans Summit to be held in Zagreb in May.

The European Council’s tense debate about Albania and North Macedonia, as well as its aftermath, raised the crucial question: when will the current candidate countries be ready for membership, and when will the EU be ready to receive them without jeopardising its own internal reforms?

The prospect of membership is a powerful incentive for democratic and economic reforms in the countries wishing to become members. Maintaining a credible enlargement perspective is a crucial objective of the EU enlargement policy.

Weakening the membership perspective carries serious risks both for the EU and for the candidate countries

The current candidates, except for Turkey, are in the Western Balkans. Since 2003 the EU has developed a strategy specific for the Western Balkan countries that confirms the European future of the region.

The strategy underlines that the EU door is open only when the individual countries meet the membership criteria.

The latest Commission report on enlargement, published last May, has both positive and negative comments on the efforts by individual countries to implement their accession reform programme.

The Commission believes that Turkey remains a key partner for the EU especially in areas of common interest such as migration and counter-terrorism. However, under the current circumstances accession negotiations with Turkey are effectively at a standstill. Negotiations with Montenegro are in progress; however, to move to a new stage in the accession process, Montenegro still needs to address shortcomings in several critical areas. Moreover, its economic reforms are being undermined by a high level of public debt, an underdeveloped private sector and a weak business environment.

With regard to Serbia, the Commission’s report concludes that progress in the normalisation of relations with Kosovo will continue to determine the overall pace of accession negotiations. Though Serbia and Kosovo remain committed to their EU-sponsored dialogue, the conclusion of a comprehensive legally binding agreement between the two is still far off. Such an agreement is needed so that Serbia and Kosovo can advance on their respective paths to EU membership.

According to the Commission’s report Albania and North Macedonia have delivered on reforms and both countries are ready for the opening of negotiations.

The latest Western Balkans strategy published in February 2018, suggested that the front runners could complete the accession process by 2025. However, recent developments and the latest Commission report on enlargement confirm that the 2025 perspective is no longer realistic, mainly because of limited progress in domestic reforms and unresolved regional conflicts.

Some member states are showing little appetite for further enlargement. The feeling that the EU should concentrate first and foremost on a reformed enlargement strategy before undertaking further enlargement processes is spreading.

Notwithstanding these reservations, the member states understand the importance of sustaining the membership perspective as this plays a powerful role in encouraging candidates to pursue needed political, economic and institutional reforms.

Both the Strategic Agenda 2019 – 2024, and the Policy Guidelines of the new Commission reaffirm the EU’s commitment to uphold the European perspective for European states that are able and willing to join.

Weakening the membership perspective carries serious risks both for the EU and for the candidate countries. Continued ambiguity can only serve to strengthen negative forces against the needed reforms. Leaders of candidate countries rely on the credibility of the EU when they take political risks in pushing for reforms. By sending mixed messages about future membership the EU undermines their efforts. The EU should be aware there are other actors competing for influence in the region, among them China and Russia. The more the European perspective is weakened the greater the temptation to look for more favourable relations outside Europe.

The decision of the October European Council to postpone the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia has shaken the credibility of the EU among the Balkan candidates. It is imperative to restore this credibility for the sake of stability in this most volatile region in the heart of Europe.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat strongly expressed his disappointment with this decision and rightly called it a blow to the credibility of the EU when dealing with partners, especially in sensitive regions.

I intend to work with like-minded colleagues within the EU Council of Ministers in order to ensure that the enlargement perspective for those countries which deserve it will be sustained and acted upon without unnecessary delay.

Edward Zammit Lewis is Minister for European Affairs and Equality.