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The EU Enlargement Process

The EU Enlargement Process
 Cecilia Vidotto Labastie
Former Project Manager - European Union

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the European Union is once again contemplating the possibility of enlargement. In her speech to the European Parliament on September 13, 2023, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen clarified the prospect of EU expansion. Enlargement is likely to be one of the priorities in the final year of the von der Leyen Commission's term.

The journey towards accession will be complex and could take several years to complete. Currently, eight countries are in talks to join the EU: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Northern Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine. To get there, candidate countries will have to undertake substantial reforms, while the EU itself will need to adapt to this evolving landscape. To this end, the European Commission will initiate a series of reviews of European policies to determine necessary adjustments for an expanded Union.

This article outlines the various stages of the accession process, highlighting the efforts expected from candidate countries and the adaptation requirements within the European Union.

Which countries can become EU members?

Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) establishes how a country can join the EU. 

To be eligible for EU membership, countries must meet the following criteria:

  • be recognized as a sovereign state by the EU;
  • be located "geographically on the European continent", though there is no official definition for this;
  • respect and promote the values enshrined in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). These values include respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity, the rule of law and human rights (in particular minority rights).
What does the accession process entail?

The length of negotiations to join the EU can differ significantly. For instance, Finland successfully completed the process in two years, whereas Turkey, which applied in 1987, is still in the negotiation phase (although talks have been suspended since 2018).

To date, there have been five waves of enlargement:

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

As well as two countries that joined the EU on their own:

  • 1981: Accession of Greece
  • 2013: Accession of Croatia

There are six phases to the EU accession process:

  1. Formal membership application
  2. Obtaining candidate status
  3. Setting up a pre-accession strategy
  4. Negotiations
  5. Accession treaty
  6. Actual integration into the EU 
1. Formal membership application

According to Article 49 of the TEU, "the applicant State shall address its application to the Council", the institution that groups the 27 Member States at the ministerial level and below. 

In practice the applicant State’s ambassador to the EU (also known as the "Permanent Representative to the EU") submits the membership application to the ambassador of the country that holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. The European Parliament as well as national parliaments are then informed of the application.

2. Obtaining candidate status

Once a country’s formal application has been submitted, ambassadors from the 27 Member States, also known as Permanent Representatives to the EU, vote unanimously within the EU Council to ask the European Commission to examine the membership application. The Commission's examination can take several months or even years. Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, applied in 2016, but the Commission did not issue its recommendation until 2019. On the other hand, for Ukraine and Moldavia, who submitted their applications in 2022, the review took just a few weeks.

The European Parliament must then express its majority support for the opening of negotiations.

The European Parliament must then express its majority support for the opening of negotiations. Finally, it is by a unanimous decision of the EU Council, after consultation with the other two institutions, that the application for candidate status is officially accepted. This status is no guarantee of full EU membership.

At present, eight countries have candidate status: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Northern Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine.

3. Setting up a pre-accession strategy

Before the start of negotiations, the candidate country establishes its pre-accession strategy with the European Commission. This is a program of European support and financial aid enabling the applicant to carry out the administrative, political and economic reforms required to meet the demands of European laws and treaties (also called the legislative corpus).

At this stage of the procedure, new eligibility criteria are introduced. Three additional conditions, commonly referred to as the "Copenhagen criteria", must be met by the candidate country:

  • The political criterion: the candidate country's institutions must be stable and democratic. The candidate country must uphold the rule of law and be able to guarantee the protection of minorities and human rights legislation;
  • The economic criterion: the candidate country must have a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with market forces and competition within the Union;
  • The "acquis": the candidate country must be able to transpose all existing European rules into national law.

Only the political criterion must be met to open negotiations. For example, in 2019, the Council required Albania to reform its judicial system and make progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime in order to open negotiations. The other criteria can be met during the negotiation phase.

There is also a fourth consideration: the EU must have the capacity to welcome a new Member State. This condition is known as the Union's "absorption capacity" or "integration capacity"- and explains why the Commission is actively pondering how its policies, budget and institutions (Parliament and Commission) might need to be adapted to an enlarged Union.

4. Negotiations

First, the Council must vote to authorize the opening of negotiations. Second, it must vote to approve the Commission's negotiating strategy.

The European Commission is responsible for negotiating the accession of a candidate country. The Council appoints a team of negotiators from the European institutions. These are generally staff from the European Commission. Negotiations take place over a series of about thirty different chapters, some of which may be negotiated simultaneously. The General Affairs Council (GAC) also oversees the full negotiation process.

The Council must then vote unanimously to close each chapter. If a candidate country’s situation deteriorates during negotiations, and no longer complies with European standards, the principle of reversibility makes it possible to reopen a previously closed negotiation chapter.

Negotiations take place over a series of about thirty different chapters, some of which may be negotiated simultaneously.

The European Commission draws up an annual assessment of the negotiations. Throughout the negotiations, the European Commission regularly briefs the Council of the EU (in its General Affairs configuration). Once all chapters are closed, the European Commission draws up its final opinion on a country's readiness to join the EU. This opinion is adopted unanimously by the Council and by an absolute majority by the European Parliament.

A new EU Member State is obliged to join the Schengen area and the euro zone - although these steps may take place after accession. For example, although the Czech Republic joined the EU in May 2004, it still has not adopted the euro.

5. The Accession Treaty and ratification

At the end of the negotiations, a succession of validations, signatures and votes takes place.

  • Voting: Firstly, an accession treaty must be approved unanimously by the Council. The European Parliament must also approve the text by an absolute majority.
  • Signature: Secondly, the Accession Treaty must be signed by the government of each Member State, as well as the candidate country’s government.
  • Ratification: Finally, before coming into force, the signed treaty must also be ratified by the acceding country and by each EU Member State.

Today, in the event of further enlargement, most national parliaments would be called upon to vote.

Since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, EU member states are required to ratify the Accession Treaty in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. Today, in the event of further enlargement, most national parliaments would be called upon to vote. France could even hold a referendum. Some regional parliaments may also be called upon to express their views: it is the case in Belgium, for example.

Within the candidate country, ratification of the text may be preceded by a referendum vote. Only six countries (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania) have ratified the treaty without a referendum.

6. Actual integration into the EU

Once the treaty signed, the candidate country acquires the status of "acceding country". Once the treaty has been fully ratified by all parties, the candidate country becomes a member of the EU on the date agreed in the treaty.

During the period between signature and ratification of the treaty, the acceding country benefits from special arrangements. Firstly, it is informed of EU legislation through an information procedure, and also has the opportunity to comment on the Union's legislative communications and recommendations. Secondly, it obtains "active observer" status in EU bodies and agencies, where it has the right to express its views without being able to vote.

How soon can the candidate countries join?

Despite the close ties between a candidate country and the European Union, the accession process can take several years.

The candidate countries are at different stages of progress. Some of them began negotiations many years ago, as in the case of Montenegro, which began negotiations in 2012 and closed 33 of the 35 negotiation chapters. Others, such as Albania and Northern Macedonia, have recently completed the first stage of negotiations.

Despite the close ties between a candidate country and the European Union, the accession process can take several years.

Some countries still need to undertake reforms for negotiations to start: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldavia and Ukraine are required efforts to improve the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, media freedom and the fight against corruption. Ukraine, for example, is preparing to amend its laws on minority rights in the hope of avoiding Hungary's veto, which threatens to delay the opening of negotiations.

What is the likelihood of candidate countries joining the EU?

Several factors need consideration when evaluating membership. On the one hand, there may be reluctance within the EU, while on the other hand, candidate countries may encounter difficulties in implementing the required reforms, including addressing issues like corruption that may conflict with Article 2 of the TEU.

Internal conflicts within these states are a major factor to be taken into account when assessing their potential membership.

Internal conflicts within these states are a major factor to be taken into account when assessing their potential membership. The situations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia for Georgia, as well as Transnistria for Moldova, could result in accession problems.

Enlargement of the European Union is a merit-based process. However, political will within the EU also plays a crucial role. The recent acceleration of the process following Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a case in point, prompting new applications and reviving those from the Western Balkans. Faced with Vladimir Putin's ambitions, enlargement is once again seen as a means of countering Russian influence on these countries.

How is the EU preparing for enlargement?

Under the Treaties, the Union is not obliged to carry out reforms before welcoming a new Member State. However, certain internal considerations must be taken into account.

Institutional balance

The integration of a new Member State has two implications at the institutional level. Firstly, the composition of the European Parliament:the number of MEPs from each country is directly linked to the size of its population, although it is not proportional.

Secondly, a Member State's voting weight in the EU Council partly depends on its demographics. In the event of Ukraine’s accession, the country would become the fifth-largest power in terms of population. This would have an immediate impact on the balance of powers within European institutions.

In the event of Ukraine’s accession, the country would become the fifth-largest power in terms of population.

Representativeness within the Commission also needs to be considered. The Lisbon Treaty established that, from November 1, 2014, the number of Commission members should be equal to ⅔ of the number of Member State. Yet, the the December 2008 European Council conclusions maintained one Commissioner per Member State. If the EU reaches 35 Member States, the question will arise again.

Balance within the single market

The EU must ensure that intergrating new states, especially when done rapidly, does not lead to too great a divergence in social, economic and political realities.

Reform before enlargement

Some Member states, including France, defend a "demanding vision" of the enlargement process, and advocate for an EU reform before any further enlargement. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also stresses this need.

Today, unanimity is required for a large proportion of votes in the Council, which lengthens the decision-making process and reduces the EU's responsiveness. Some Member States, including France and Germany, are proposing to extend the use of majority voting to areas such as foreign policy, the adoption of sanctions, and tax issues. Such modification in the decision-making process can be achieved by using the "passerelle clauses". This mechanism enables the use of qualified majority voting, without having to revise the treaties. However, several conditions must be met: national parliaments must be notified, and the Council must first vote unanimously to use the "passerelle clause". Alternatively, a Member State not wishing to block a decision may withdraw from a vote, in accordance with Article 31 of the TEU. This practice is commonly referred to as "positive abstention".

Anticipating the budgetary implications of a new Member State's accession on European policies is of crucial importance.

Anticipating the budgetary implications of a new Member State's accession on European policies is of crucial importance. In the case of Ukraine, accession would require a major redesign of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the allocation of cohesion funds within the EU.

This will have a direct impact on the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). European institutions and national governments are already looking closely at this issue.

Both the European institutions and some Member States are actively considering the issue. In September 2023, the President of the European Commission announced the launch of a series of evaluations aimed at reviewing the Union's policies in view of its enlargement. These assessments will also cover the functioning of the European Parliament and the Commission in an enlarged Union, as well as the EU budget, its financing methods and sources.

At the same time, France and Germany have commissioned a report from a group of experts to put forward recommendations for preparing the European Union to welcome new members.

Are there alternatives to enlargement?

In 2003, the Thessaloniki Summit introduced a number of changes to the accession process in the hope of achieving better results. Partnerships were set up to facilitate the adoption of the "acquis" criterion: EU financial aid, use of the Commission instruments to enforce European law, opening up of some Community action programs (culture, research, energy or environment) to candidate countries. Yet 20 years on, only Croatia has joined the Union, and the accession process remains slow, exacerbated by an "enlargement fatigue" on the European side and difficulties on the part of candidate countries in meeting the EU's political and economic requirements.

Since then, various proposals have emerged to offer alternatives to traditional enlargement, or to engage candidate countries in initiatives prior to their formal accession. Some of these proposals have been put forward by governments for some time now, while others are more recent.

Various options are currently under discussion:

  • Integration into the single market first, then into the EU: an idea put forward as early as 2022 by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for Ukraine. It was taken up again in 2023 by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, regarding all the candidate countries. 
  • Integration in some European sectors first, and then the EU: Charles Michel also proposes "gradual and progressive integration" in other sectors such as energy, transport, security or defense. This could mean involving candidates in initiatives such as the Green Deal, the European digital market, industrial policy or the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
  • Observer and then member of the EU: the Göttweig Declaration published in June 2023 by a group of seven Member States (Austria, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic) calls for the gradual integration of candidate countries, allowing them to participate in certain EU councils and meetings. In concrete terms, this initiative supports the participation of candidate countries in the EU Foreign Affairs Council, the establishment of a bi-annual strategic debate on the Western Balkans, the intensification of visits by European representatives to the region, and the introduction of regular exchanges between candidate countries and the Political and Security Committee (PSC).
  • Access to European funds: another proposal is to grant candidate countries greater access to European funds to encourage the reform process.
  • A "multi-speed" Europe: this process allows candidate countries to progress at different speeds in their EU integration process, while maintaining the ultimate goal of equality for all. This vision would involve the formation of a core group of more strongly integrated countries, surrounded by circles of countries participating at different levels of integration.

Copyright Image :  Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP

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