Migrants between Serbia and Hungary,17 September 2015. (EPA/Balazs Mohai)

Migrants between Serbia and Hungary, 17 September 2015. (EPA/Balazs Mohai)

By Colin McIntyre

At a time when the European Union’s borders are under siege from thousands of refugees and immigrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty, the prospect of enlarging the 28-nation bloc would seem a distant dream.

Yet negotiations continue with a view to bringing in new members, mainly from southeast Europe.

In August, Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement to improve their troubled relationship that was widely seen as clearing the path for possible eventual EU membership.

Waiting in the wings are four other countries at various stages in the lengthy accession process, which requires applicants to bring their economic, justice and social systems into line with the rest of the group. They are Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Turkey. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a potential candidate.

The thought of moving the EU’s borders to the south fills many people with alarm.

Much of the continent is in turmoil as refugees and immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia pour into the south and head for more prosperous countries in the north, particularly Germany, Sweden and Britain.

Gate-keepers to the south

In addition to the security issue, there is the thorny question of nationals of new member states moving in large numbers to wealthier countries to live and work under the freedom of movement clause that is a bed-rock of the EU’s founding treaty.

Some EU countries, particularly Britain, are struggling to assimilate the rush of migrants following the collapse of communism in 1989. Their governments are facing growing pressure from right-wing nationalist parties calling for an end to free movement in the bloc.

At present the EU’s main gate-keepers to immigration from the south are Italy, Greece and Spain — all with huge coastlines — and land-locked Hungary. They are members of the EU’s Schengen group, mainly in the north and west, which have ended visa controls between them.

Italy has struggled to cope with more than 100,000 immigrants in the first eight months of this year, most of them arriving on Lampedusa island after a hazardous boat crossing from Libya, more than 300 kilometers (190 miles) away, or Tunisia, just over 100 kilometers.

More than 2,800 migrants have died on that journey this year.

Greece, with more than 200 inhabited islands — one of them, Kos, just four kilometers from Turkey — offers the less hazardous and more popular route for migrants from the Middle East and Asia.

With more than 230,000 coming into Greece in the first eight months of the year, the Athens government has been overwhelmed.

Potential job-seekers

Hungary, the first Schengen country for many migrants coming up overland from southern Europe, has closed its border with Serbia, made crossing it a criminal offense and fired tear-gas at refugees who tried to break through.

If the EU’s plans stay on track, the bloc’s outer border could move south to Albania, which has more than 400 kilometers of coastline and a reputation for organised crime including smuggling, or in the case of Schengen to Croatia, which has more than 3,000 kilometers of coastline and over 50 inhabited islands.

Inclusion of the former Yugoslav republics –- excluding Croatia, which is already an EU member — would add 8.2 million people from the poorest part of the continent to the pool of potential job-seekers in the bloc.

For most of these countries, membership is some way off.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is split uneasily between Bosnian-Muslim (Bozniak, Croatian and Serb) communities, Albania faces hurdles in bringing its structures into line and combating crime and corruption, while Kosovo has yet to be recognized by some 100 countries.

The elephant in the room

But with Russia showing interest in the region, much of whose population shares its Orthodox Christian religion, some EU circles argue that it needs to be connected with the rest of Europe, whatever the cost.

And then there is Turkey, the elephant in the room.

It has a population of 77 million Muslims, a question mark over human rights and treatment of minorities, a long-running war with some of its large Kurdish minority and problems with Cyprus over the self-proclaimed Turkish administration in the north of the island.

Some European politicians argue that incorporating such a huge Muslim population would put strains on the labor market and could change the character of the bloc. These politicians would favor a partnership deal with Turkey rather than full membership.

It’s not clear how the migrant crisis will affect the development of the EU, particularly the free movement of people, and whether the dream of its founders for a united, prosperous and free Europe for all its people can be realized in the foreseeable future.

With Russia going its own way and resisting EU attempts to bring Ukraine and Georgia into the fold, and with Turkey facing domestic problems and turmoil in its neighborhood, the only possible candidates would seem to be Balkan states.


Colin McIntyre

Colin McIntyre led coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.

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