BRUSSELS -- The annual European Union progress reports on membership hopefuls, adopted by the European Commission today, paint a largely depressing picture.
Out of nine countries, only Croatia emerges with a realistic chance of joining the EU in the foreseeable future. All of its neighbors in the western Balkans fail key EU tests and conditions, as does Turkey.
This year' progress reports are the first since the EU's Lisbon Treaty came into force late last year.
Unveiling the reports in Brussels today, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele told the bloc's member states that enlargement remains necessary.
"In this climate of economic uncertainty, people may ask, 'Why does enlargement matter?' Enlargement matters because it reinforces peace and stability in Europe," Fuele said. "Enlargement makes the European Union a safer place with its focus on consolidating the rule of law while promoting democracy and fundamental freedoms across the aspirant countries, who are our closest neighbors."
Continued enlargement is also in the EU's own self-interest because it bolsters the bloc's case to be accepted as a global player, by proving that its "transformative power" works and increasing its own numbers.
But judging from this year's reports, the EU has either done a poor job of transforming its neighbors or its neighbors themselves have lost some of their reform zeal.
No country emerges with a promising scorecard.
Fuele said even front-runner Croatia -- which hopes to conclude accession talks next year -- falls short of meeting key EU standards, even though negotiations have reached the final phase.
"The [European] Commission considers that negotiations should be concluded once Croatia has met the outstanding closing benchmarks, in particular in the field of judiciary and fundamental rights, including the fight against corruption," Fuele said.
Those final benchmarks must be met, Fuele said, to remove the threat of the EU introducing "verification mechanisms" to monitor Croatian progress after accession.
Such mechanisms were imposed on Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and led to sanctions in the ensuing years as it became clear that both countries were unprepared to handle EU aid funds. That experience, among others, strengthened the case of skeptics of further enlargement, which Fuele reiterated today by saying that no new entrant will accede unless it is "100 percent ready."
Further down the aspirant pecking order, candidate country Macedonia was told it fulfills the EU's political criteria but was given a long list of issues on which "further progress" is needed, including dialogue among political actors, judiciary and public administration reform, the fight against corruption, freedom of expression, and improving the business environment.
The main obstacle for Macedonia remains the dispute over its name with Greece, an EU member state, which continues to veto the opening of accession talks with Skopje.
Montenegro was recommended for candidate status in "recognition of its achievements." The report said "this reflects our position that progress should yield tangible results on the road towards accession."
While noting it had made progress in the political criteria field, Albania was told it still needs further reforms before it can advance. The EU noted its application had been "hampered by the ongoing political stalemate that puts into question the stability of its institutions."
Serbia was told its bid for candidate status is "well-placed" but was also faulted on political standards. The report said further judicial and public administration reforms are needed, and organized crime and corruption remain a concern.
However, Belgrade has two even bigger problems -- its unwillingness to cooperate with and recognize Kosovo, and its failure to apprehend two war crimes suspects wanted by the international tribunal in The Hague.
Apart from lacking a political consensus among its constituent parts on the country's future, Bosnia-Herzegovina's failings border on the elementary. Its constitution is not line with the European Convention of Human Rights -- an EU must -- and it has not managed to meet the conditions necessary to emerge from under the tutelage of the Office of the High Representative of the international community.
Fuele made the challenge clear, saying, "Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to form a government committed to the country's EU future and to speed up relevant reforms."
Kosovo -- whose independence has yet to be recognized by five EU member states -- is not in a much better situation, according to the EU's assessment. Fuele praised its "increased cooperation" with the bloc's EULEX rule-of-law mission but said the authorities need to be "more constructive" in pursuing regional cooperation.
The commissioner also reiterated Brussels' long-professed readiness to discuss lifting EU visas for Kosovo's citizens but not before Pristina takes steps to ensure the effective reintegration of returnees ejected as undesirables by EU member states.
Turkey, although a candidate country, lacks the assurances guaranteeing ultimate EU membership given to all western Balkan nations in 2003 and again in 2006.
Its entry talks have stalled, largely due to problems with the Greek-community government of Cyprus, an EU member state. Fuele today urged Ankara to normalize relations with Nicosia.
Turkey's political reforms came under heavy fire in the European Commission report. The European Parliament's rapporteur on Turkey, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, issued a statement highlighting constraints on the freedom of expression that said, "Pressure on newspapers, court cases against journalists and the disproportionate ban of numerous websites are unacceptable in a free pluralistic society."
The odd one out among the nine reports was Iceland, which has quickly progressed on the road toward EU membership since enlisting as a candidate last year. Iceland's main problem, commissioner Fuele said, is making sure its "citizens are informed about what EU membership entails."