Enlargement is one of the most powerful political tools of the European Union (EU). All European citizens benefit from having neighbours which function as stable democracies and prosperous market economies. Enlargement is a carefully managed process which helps the transformation of the countries involved and contributes to peace, stability, prosperity, democracy, human rights and the rule of law across Europe.
Any European country can apply for EU membership if it respects the principles of liberty, democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. Accession, however, can only follow if the state which made the request meets all the accession criteria, known as the Copenhagen criteria. These criteria, set by the European Council in Copenhagen in 1993 and amended by the European Council in Madrid in 1995 are as follows:
- politically stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights, and the rights and protection of minorities;
- functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and EU market forces;
- ability to assume the obligations of membership, including adherence to the political, economic and monetary objectives of the EU;
- adoption of the accumulated body of EU law (Acquis Communautaire) and its effective implementation through appropriate administrative and judicial structures.
A country that wishes to join the EU submits an application for membership to the Council, which asks the Commission to assess the applicant's ability to meet the conditions of membership. If the Commission delivers a positive opinion and the Council unanimously agrees, negotiations are formally opened between the candidate and the member states.
Candidate countries have to demonstrate the ability to fully play their part as members - something that requires wide support among their citizens, as well as political, legal and technical compliance with the EU's standards and norms. The EU operates comprehensive approval procedures that ensure new members are admitted into the Union only when they have met all the requirements, and only with the consent of the EU institutions and the governments of the EU member states and of the candidate country. Countries wishing to join the EU can proceed from one stage of the process to the next only upon meeting all the conditions at each stage. In this way, the prospect of accession acts as a powerful incentive to reform. The EU policy on enlargement ensures that accession is of benefit to both the EU and to the country joining it.
Pre-accession strategy is designed to prepare candidate countries for future membership. It encompasses the following frameworks and mechanisms:
- Europe Agreements / Association Agreements / Stabilization and Association Process
- Accession Partnerships / European Partnerships
- Pre-accession assistance
- Co-financing from international financial institutions
- Participation in EU programmes, agencies and committees
- National Programme for the Adoption of the legal legacy of the E
- Regular reports / Progress Reports
- Political dialogue
The first step in negotiations is called screening. This is the analytical examination of the Acquis. The purpose of screening is to familiarize the candidate country with the Acquis and to define the areas in which the legislation of the candidate country needs to be amended in order to bring it in line with EU standards. As the basis for launching the actual, technical negotiation process, the Commission establishes a screening report for each chapter and for each member state. The candidate country submits a negotiating position, and the European Commission submits a draft common position (NGA), as adopted by the European Council, allowing for the opening of a chapter. Negotiations take place at the level of ministers or deputies, i.e. Permanent Representatives of the member states, ambassadors or chief negotiators for candidate countries.
Once negotiations on all chapters are concluded, the results of the negotiations are incorporated into a draft Accession Treaty. The draft agreement is subsequently submitted to the Commission for an opinion and the European Parliament for approval. After signing, the Accession Treaty is submitted to member states and the acceding country for ratification in accordance with their constitutional processes. Once the ratification process is completed and the contract takes effect, the candidate becomes a member state.
Negotiations are conducted individually with each candidate country. The pace of negotiations varies from country to country and depends on the progress made by each country towards reform and alignment with EU laws. In order to bring its administration and judiciary up to the level required for EU accession, each candidate country draws up an Action Plan. The priorities for inclusion in Action Plans are identified in Accession or European Partnerships that are created by the EU for each candidate country. Each candidate country is also required to create a National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis. It is a highly specific instrument that provides details, timetables and costs for the fulfilment of each priority area defined by the EU in the Accession Partnership.
Once the Accession Treaty is signed, the candidate country becomes an "Acceding State", and is entitled to interim privileges until gaining member-state status. The "Acceding State" can comment on draft EU proposals, communications, recommendations or initiatives. It also acquires “active observer status” on EU bodies and agencies, where it is entitled to speak, but not to vote. Once the ratification process is complete, the treaty enters into force on its scheduled date and the accession state becomes a member state.