The truth is that having EU candidate status today has almost no practical significance.
Such is the experience of the countries of the Western Balkans, which have been candidates for many years and have not sighted light at the tunnel for some time. The examples of Albania and North Macedonia are particularly pertinent. These countries were granted candidate status long ago, but, even after they met the necessary conditions, accession negotiations have still not begun.
The decision to proceed depends on the member states and is hostage to political games. Moreover, the negotiation process itself is tedious and overly bureaucratic. Indeed, the demanding nature of the reforms required is for good reason. But, in practice, those EU countries that are critical of enlargement can – and do – use this stringency for their own ends. This deep-seated scepticism of enlargement in many countries will not disappear any time soon, despite all the sympathy for Ukraine and other associated countries.
Offering the three associated states the prospect of joining the EU would undoubtedly send a much-needed political signal. But such an offer should not remain an empty gesture. Fast-track integration would face serious obstacles – legal, political, and economic. It may mean abbreviating certain bureaucratic procedures.
It would, however, be unrealistic to expect that it will lead to accelerated membership, with the omission or softening of important requirements both for the applicant countries and for the EU itself.
This would be an empty promise, and betting on it would be a very short-sighted strategy.