The European Community for Coal and Steel, the European Economic Community and Euratom, founded in 1951 and 1957 respectively, are at the origin of the European Union. The European Union was founded with the aim to promote peace, security and prosperity throughout Europe and is based on a commitment to common values such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom and human rights and the single market.
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The enlargement process goes hand in hand with the deepening of the cooperation between the Member States. Successive enlargements have shaped the history of the European Union. Up to now, seven enlargement rounds have taken place: 1973 (Denmark, Great Britain, Ireland), 1981 (Greece), 1986 (Portugal, Spain), 1995 (Austria, Finland, Sweden), 2004 (Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia), 2007 (Bulgaria, Romania) and 2013 (Croatia).
The EU accession process is subject to approval by all EU Member States and encompasses several stages: The process is officially launched when a country submits the formal application for EU membership to the European Council. The European Council then asks the European Commission to assess the application based upon established criteria and conditions.
In the “avis”, the European Commission presents its recommendations for further steps. Depending on the extent in which the applicant country fulfils the accession criteria, the European Commission may recommend the opening of accession negotiations or at first the granting of the candidate status only.
Based upon this opinion, the European Council unanimously and formally decides whether to accept the membership application and whether to launch the negotiations for accession.
Accession negotiations begin once the European Council issues a negotiating mandate to the European Commission. In a first step, a negotiation framework is adopted which lays out the principles and red lines for the negotiations. The acquis communautaire, the body of European Union law, is then divided in 35 policy areas called chapters in order to conduct the negotiations thematically.
In the so-called Screening process, the European Commission undertakes a detailed examination of each chapter to determine the degree to which the candidate country’s legislation deviates from the EU acquis and requires adaptation. The Commission then informs the European Council of the results of the Screening process and, if appropriate, recommends the opening of negotiations under a specific chapter.
In the so-called Monitoring, the European Commission checks the progress of the candidate country’s convergence to the EU until its accession. The Commission informs the European Council and the European Parliament regularly in Strategy papers of the developments in the candidate country regarding the adaption and implementation of the EU acquis.
Once all EU Member States are satisfied with the progress achieved by the candidate in adapting EU legislation and standards in a specific policy area, the negotiation chapter can be closed provisionally.
Upon completion of the negotiations, the accession treaty is prepared, including the agreements reached on transitional periods and safeguard clauses, provisions concerning necessary adaptations of EU institutions and treaties as well as the envisaged date of accession. The accession treaty must then be endorsed by the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament before being signed by all EU Member States and the candidate country. Once the accession treaty is signed, the candidate country becomes an “acceding country” and benefits from certain privileges pending its accession.
The accession treaty enters into force when it has been ratified all EU Member States and the acceding country. The acceding country becomes a full member of the EU on the date provided in the treaty.
Supporting accession efforts
In order to assist countries in implementing the reforms necessary for EU membership, the EU has developed a pre-accession strategy based on individually arranged accession partnerships. The EU has, for example, concluded Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the countries of the Western Balkans. As part of the pre-accession strategy, candidate countries furthermore have the possibility to participate in EU Programmes.
The Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) is the means by which the EU supports reforms financially and technically in candidate and potential candidate countries. Another central element of the enlargement process constitutes the reform of the public administration, which is promoted through targeted administrative partnerships (“Twinning”) between EU Member States and candidate and potential candidate countries.