The Enlargement of the Union  

On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the 28th Member State of the European Union. Croatia’s accession, which followed that of Romania and Bulgaria on 1 January 2007, marked the sixth enlargement. Negotiations are being conducted with Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are also candidate countries, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.

Legal basis  

  • Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) establishes which states may apply;
  • Article 2 TEU describes the EU’s founding values.

Objectives  

The EU’s enlargement policy aims to unite European countries in a common political and economic project. Guided by the Union’s values and subject to strict conditions, enlargement has proved to be one of the most successful tools in promoting political, economic and societal reforms, and in consolidating peace, stability and democracy across the continent. Enlargement policy also enhances the EU’s presence on the global stage.

Background  

A. Conditions for accession

Any European state may apply to become a member of the Union if it respects the common values of the Member States and is committed to their promotion (Article 49 TEU). The Copenhagen criteria, established by the European Council in 1993 in Copenhagen, are essential in any candidate or potential candidate country’s EU integration process. They include:

  • The stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  • A functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU;
  • The ability to take on the obligations of membership, including by adhering to the aims of political, economic and monetary union, and adopting the common rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law (the acquis communautaire).

In December 2006 the European Council agreed on a ‘renewed consensus on enlargement’, based on ‘consolidation, conditionality and communication’ and on the EU’s capacity to integrate new members.

B. The EU’s integration capacity: institutional arrangements

Successive enlargements formed a substantial part of the institutional negotiations that led to the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon. The EU had to adapt its institutions and decision-making processes to the arrival of new Member States and ensure that enlargement would not come at the expense of efficient, accountable policymaking. The Treaty of Lisbon introduced profound changes to the composition and work of the main EU institutions. Some of these changes reflected the need for a sustainable set of rules that do not require new amendments with every wave of enlargement.

C. Process

A country that wishes to join the EU addresses its application to the Council, which asks the Commission to submit an opinion. The European Parliament is notified of this application. If the Commission’s opinion is favourable, the European Council may decide — by unanimity — to grant the country candidate status. Following a recommendation by the Commission, the Council decides — by unanimity — whether negotiations should be opened. The sum of EU legislation (the acquis communautaire) is divided into more than 30 policy chapters. Before actual negotiations start, the Commission delivers a ‘screening’ report for each chapter. On the basis of the Commission’s recommendation, the Council decides by unanimity whether or not to open each new negotiation chapter. Whenever progress is judged satisfactory, the Commission may recommend ‘provisionally closing’ a chapter. The Council again decides by unanimity. When negotiations on all the chapters are completed, the terms and conditions — including possible safeguard clauses and transitional arrangements — are incorporated into an accession treaty between the EU Member States and the candidate state. Only after Parliament’s consent and the Council’s unanimous approval can the accession treaty be signed. It is then submitted by all contracting states for ratification, in accordance with their constitutional requirements (i.e. ratification by parliament or referendum).

Past enlargements  

Country Member since Particularities
Belgium
France
Germany
Italy
Luxembourg
Netherlands
1958 Original signatories of the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
Denmark
Ireland
United Kingdom
1973  
Greece 1981 Greece’s accession consolidated democracy in the country.
Portugal
Spain
1986 This enlargement consolidated democracy in Portugal and Spain.
Austria
Finland
Sweden
1995  
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Estonia
Hungary
Latvia
Lithuania
Malta
Poland
Slovakia
Slovenia
2004 Aimed at reuniting the continent after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, this enlargement was launched by the European Council meeting of December 1997. Negotiations were conducted separately with each country, based on a single negotiating framework.
Bulgaria
Romania
2007 The pace of reform in Bulgaria and Romania did not allow those countries to join in 2004. A ‘cooperation and verification mechanism’ in key areas — judicial reform, the fight against corruption and the fight against organised crime (the latter applying only to Bulgaria) — continues monitoring progress after accession.
Croatia 2013 The accession negotiations with Croatia were subject to the stricter conditionality instituted in December 2006 by the European Council’s ‘renewed consensus on enlargement’.

A. Western Balkans

Relations with the Western Balkans fall within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association Process, launched in 1999. It is based on bilateral stabilisation and association agreements.

Croatia’s accession to the EU on 1 July 2013 constitutes a significant incentive for other countries in the region. Building on the experience with Croatia, the Commission proposed further improvements to its negotiating approach in its 2011-2012 ‘Enlargement Strategy’, including a stronger emphasis on rule-of-law issues. This means that negotiating chapters on judicial reform and fundamental rights (chapter 23) and on justice, freedom and security (chapter 24) are opened at an early stage in all future negotiations.

In line with this ‘new approach’, opening chapters 23 and 24 has been a top priority in the negotiations with Montenegro and subsequently with Serbia. Both chapters — along with others — were opened with Montenegro on 18 December 2013. Following the official opening of negotiations with Serbia on 21 January 2014, chapters 23 and 24 were opened on 18 July 2016. In February 2018 the Commission published a new ‘Western Balkans Strategy’, which states that Montenegro and Serbia as ‘frontrunners’ could join the EU by 2025, acknowledging that this ‘perspective’ is ‘extremely ambitious’ and that everything will depend on the ‘objective merits and results of each country’. The other countries in the region ‘may catch up or overtake each other depending on progress made’.

Negotiations have not yet been opened with the other two Western Balkan candidate countries. In the case of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which was granted EU candidate status in 2005, this is mainly due to the dispute with Greece over the country’s use of the name ‘Macedonia’. Since 2009, the Commission has consistently recommended that negotiations be opened with the country. Albania was granted candidate status in June 2014. In light of the country’s progress, the Commission recommended opening negotiations with Albania in its 2016 and 2018 reports.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries. The so-called ‘renewed approach’ for Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a particular focus on economic governance, allowed the entry into force of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU on 1 June 2015. On 15 February 2016 the country submitted its membership application. On 20 September 2016 the Council asked the Commission to submit its opinion on the basis of replies to a comprehensive questionnaire, which the Commission handed over to the authorities on 9 December 2016. On 28 February 2018 the completed questionnaire was submitted to the Commission, which is now drafting its opinion. A Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between the EU and Kosovo, which is not recognised as an independent country by five EU Member States, entered into force on 1 April 2016. Kosovo is also conducting a dialogue with Serbia. This should lead to a legally binding comprehensive normalisation agreement.

B. Turkey

Turkey applied for membership in 1987 and was declared a candidate country in 1999. Negotiations were opened in 2005. Eight chapters are blocked, and no chapter will be provisionally closed until Turkey applies the ‘Additional Protocol to the Ankara Association Agreement’ to Cyprus. Opening other chapters has been opposed by individual EU Member States. After a standstill of more than three years, a new negotiating chapter — on regional policy and coordinating structural instruments — was opened in November 2013. Another one (on economic and monetary policy) was opened on 14 December 2015. On 18 March 2016 Turkey and the EU reaffirmed their commitment to implementing their joint action plan to stem the flow of irregular migrants to the EU, as well as to re-energising the accession process. It was also agreed that the visa liberalisation process would be accelerated. On 30 June 2016 an additional negotiating chapter (on financial and budgetary provisions) was opened. In light of the dramatic deterioration of the rule of law in Turkey, in particular in the aftermath of the July 2016 attempted coup, it is fair to say that the accession process with Turkey is currently de facto frozen.

C. Iceland

Iceland applied for EU membership in July 2009 and negotiations were opened in June 2010. As a well-established democracy and a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), Iceland made rapid progress in its negotiations with the EU. However, general elections in 2013 ushered in a new government, which has frozen accession negotiations. In March 2015, the government asked the EU to no longer consider Iceland a candidate country, without, however, officially withdrawing Iceland’s membership application.

Role of the European Parliament  

Under Article 49 TEU, Parliament must give its consent to any new accession to the EU. Parliament also has a significant say over the financial aspects of accession: under the Treaty of Lisbon, Parliament’s approval is required for adoption of the multiannual financial framework (MFF). Its budgetary powers give it a direct influence on the amounts allocated to the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA).

Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs appoints standing rapporteurs for all candidate and potential candidate countries. Parliament expresses its positions on enlargement in the form of annual resolutions responding to the Commission’s latest annual ‘country reports’. Its resolutions on the EU’s enlargement strategy also shape policy. Last but not least, Parliament maintains regular bilateral relations with the parliaments of candidate and potential candidate countries through its delegations, which discuss with their counterparts issues that are relevant to the EU accession process.

 

André De Munter