The European Union is open to any European country which is democratic, has a market economy and possesses the administrative capacity to handle the rights and obligations of membership. Enlargement of the union is an ongoing process. From the six founding members in the 1950’s the EU has expanded to include 27 member states in 2007.
Enlargement is also one of the most debated topics on the European agenda. It is both foreign and internal policy for the EU and considered to be one of the most powerful policy tools the union has. The EU attempts to use this tool to extend the zone of peace and stability, liberty and democracy, prosperity and solidarity across Europe. While working for enlargement, the EU also stresses that the strict accession criteria for candidate countries have to be respected.
Joining the EU begins with a country applying for membership. Once current member states, together with the Commission and Parliament, accept an applicant as a potential member state in principle, it becomes a ‘candidate country’. The candidate country then enters into detailed negotiations on its terms of membership. As a basis for launching the technical negotiation process, the Commission establishes a “screening report” for each chapter and each country. Candidate country in its turn submits a negotiating position. The Commission submits to the Council a Draft Common Position (DCP). The Council adopts a common position allowing opening of the chapters.
In essence, to become a member of the EU, a candidate country must meet the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ which means it has to adopt the entire body of existing EU legislation (known as the acquis communautaire) into its own legal system and show evidence of being a stable and well-functioning democracy and economy. Once negotiations are completed, an accession treaty has to be ratified in each current member state and in the candidate country itself.
The Commission’s DG Enlargement is responsible for relations with the candidate countries.
Croatia and Turkey are candidate countries. They started accession negotiations on 3 October 2005. In December 2005, the European Council granted the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia the status of a candidate country; accession negotiations have not started.
All the other Western Balkan countries are potential candidate countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia including Kosovo under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. The EU has repeatedly reaffirmed at the highest level its commitment for eventual EU membership of the Western Balkan countries, provided they fulfill the accession criteria, but there is no timetable for new memberships.
A new Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA) aims to provide targeted pre-accession assistance both to candidate countries and to potential candidates.