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6 successful waves of EU enlargement

  • 2013: Croatia
  • 2007: Bulgaria and Romania
  • 2004: Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia
  • 1995: Austria, Finland and Sweden
  • 1986: Portugal and Spain
  • 1981: Greece
  • 1973: Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom

Enlargement is  the process whereby countries join the European Union.

How does EU enlargement work?

Any European country which respects the EU values referred to in the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) and is committed to promoting them can apply to become a member of the EU.

Accession criteria

The first step is for the country to meet the accession criteria. These criteria were defined at a European Council meeting in Copenhagen in 1993, and often referred to as the 'Copenhagen criteria'. 

The Copenhagen criteria set a number of democratic, economic and political conditions for countries who want to join the EU: 

  • stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities
  • a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU
  • the ability to take on and effectively implement the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union

The EU also needs to be able to integrate new members.

Benefits of EU enlargement 

  • increased prosperity for all member states: 3 times more trade exchanges between old and new member states, 5 times more among new member states
    • greater stability  in Europe
    • more weight for the EU in global affairs 

    Membership negotiations started

    Serbia - January 2014
    Montenegro - June 2012
    Turkey - October 2005

    Candidate countries

    Albania - June 2014
    The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - December 2005

    Potential candidate countries

    Bosnia and Herzegovina
    Kosovo

    Enlargement strategy

    The renewed consensus on the enlargement agreed at the European Council meeting in December 2006, continues to guide EU enlargement policy. EU leaders agreed to pursue a strategy based on: 

    • the consolidation of EU commitments  to ongoing accession negotiations
    • a fair and rigorous conditionality at all stages of negotiations with candidate countries
    • greater transparency and better communication to ensure broad and sustained public support
    • the EU's capacity to integrate new members

    The Western Balkans

    The European Council meeting in Thessaloniki on 19-20 June 2003 affirmed its determination to fully support the European perspective of the Western Balkans countries.  

    At a EUCO meeting in December 2006, EU leaders confirmed that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union.

    The Western Balkans  will become an integral part of the EU once they fully comply with:

    • the accession criteria
    • the conditions established in the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP)

    In the Council

    The General Affairs Council (GAC)  configuration establishes and supervises the EU enlargement process and accession negotiations. When a country submits an application to join the EU, the Council invites the European Commission to submit its opinion on this application.

    The GAC decisions open a technical evaluation procedure that will determine whether:

    • the country meets all the necessary criteria for consideration as an official candidate for EU membership
    • formal membership negotiations can be opened and successfully closed  
    • the candidate country can join the EU 

    All decisions taken at the GAC to evaluate progress made by candidate countries require unanimous agreement between the 28 EU member states 

    Every December the GAC takes stock of the enlargement process. The discussion and any potential decisions are based on the Commission's annual enlargement strategy and individual progress reports on each enlargement country. These are traditionally published in October.

    Latest decisions

    On 16 December 2014:

    • the Council adopted conclusions on EU enlargement policy and the stabilisation and association process for the Western Balkans and Turkey; EU ministers stressed the importance for nations hoping to join the Union to keep the momentum for necessary economic and institutional reforms, but also to keep their commitment to respect EU fundamental values such as the freedom of expression and the media 
    • the fifth meeting of the Accession Conference with Montenegro was held to open 4 new chapters for negotiations