Enlargement: how do countries join the EU? 

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Find out how enlargement works and how countries can join the European Union.

A number of countries have applied to join the EU. However, it’s a long process involving a lot of preparation. Read on to find out how it works.


Which countries want to join the EU?


Current candidate countries include Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey and since 23 June also Ukraine and Moldova. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Kosovo are potential candidates.


These countries benefit from EU funding, detailed policy advice, as well as Association Agreements, giving far-reaching access to the EU’s internal market.


In March 2022, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova applied to join the EU. Parliament called for EU candidate status to be given to Ukraine and Moldova “without delay” and to Georgia once it has completed the necessary reforms.

In a speech to EU leaders at the start of a summit dedicated to this issue on 23 June 2022, Parliament President Roberta Metsola said this would strengthen the EU: “We should be clear this is not simply some symbolic act, this will strengthen the EU and it will strengthen Ukraine and Moldova. It will show our people, as well as theirs, that our values matter more than rhetoric. That hope can mean results. And other countries waiting - those in the Western Balkans - also need to see hope lead to results. It is time.”


During the summit, EU countries recognised Ukraine and Moldova as candidate countries and Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina as potential candidates, meaning they have been asked to complete additional reforms.


What are the criteria for being an EU candidate country?


In order to apply for EU membership a country has to be European and respect the EU’s democratic values. It also needs stable institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law; a functioning market economy; and the ability to take on and carry out the obligations of EU membership.


How does the enlargement process work?


A country can become an official candidate once it meets basic political, economic and reform criteria. It can then start formal negotiations on 35 chapters covering many different policy areas with the EU. Once negotiations and reforms have been completed, an Accession Treaty is finalised, which needs to be ratified by all existing EU member states and the country itself before the country can join the EU.


What is the role of the Parliament?


MEPs debate and vote on annual progress reports for each country, which is an opportunity to identify areas of concerns.


The Parliament’s approval is also required before a country can join the EU.


How has the situation evolved in recent years?


The European Commission published its Enlargement Strategy Paper on 6 February 2018, which cites 2025 as an indicative joining date for Serbia and Montenegro. Commission representatives discussed the strategy with MEPs during a debate in plenary in Strasbourg on the same day.

MEPs broadly welcomed the strategy, but also stressed the need for reforms in the Western Balkans.


During an EU-Western Balkans summit in Brdo pri Kranju, Slovenia, on 6 October 2021, EU leaders reiterated their support for the countries and set out a range of initiatives to boost the region.


Parliament continues to support the accession of the Western Balkans countries to the EU. In a resolution adopted in June 2020, MEPs call on the EU to do more to make the enlargement process for these countries a success. .


In a resolution adopted in October 2019, Parliament expressed disappointment that Albania and North Macedonia were not able to start accession talks, stressing that the enlargement process has played a decisive role in stabilising the Western Balkans.