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The accession process

Under Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), countries wishing to join the EU submit applications for membership to the Council of the EU (made up of ministerial representatives of each Member State). The European Council (heads of state and government of the EU Member States) however takes key decisions in the process, including on giving applicant states official EU “candidate status” and on launching negotiations.

The European Council’s so-called Copenhagen criteria provide that countries seeking to join the EU need to have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights, a functioning market economy, and the ability to take on and implement the obligations of membership.

The EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, plays an important role in the accession process. It issues recommendations on whether to grant applicant countries “candidate status” and on starting negotiations, undertakes a screening process to assess the candidate states’ alignment with EU rules and prepares negotiating frameworks.

Negotiations are undertaken in a series of intergovernmental conferences involving representatives of the candidate states and Member States of the EU. Negotiations are completed when the EU is satisfied that the candidate state is ready to take on the obligations of EU membership, set out across 35 policy and thematic chapters. An accession treaty then needs to be agreed between the EU and the candidate state, which needs to be ratified by all Member States and the acceding state before it can finally join the EU.

The accession process can be lengthy, notably for states where there have been recent transitions to democracy and significant disparity with the EU in terms of economic development. For former Communist states that have joined the EU since 2004, between nine and twelve years passed between making their applications to join the EU and becoming Member States.

Current candidates for accession

There are nine countries that currently have EU candidate status. These include Turkey. However, the EU declared accession negotiations with Turkey at a standstill in 2018 amid concerns about developments within the country and it “moving further away” from the EU.

Five countries from the Western Balkans have candidate status. EU accession negotiations were launched with Montenegro in 2010 and Serbia in 2012, but progress in these negotiations and in launching negotiations with other Western Balkans has been slow. In the case of Serbia, the EU has expressed concern that Serbia has not aligned with EU sanctions against Russia and other EU foreign and security policy positions, as is expected of EU candidate states.

Prior to 2022, the launch of EU accession negotiations with other candidate states appeared blocked for several years with some Member States concerned about the EU’s capacity to absorb new members. Developments in some of the more recent Member States, including issues relating to the rule of law and corruption, also made some Member States reluctant to accept new members. North Macedonia was also blocked by objections from Greece and Bulgaria.  Concerns about the way in which the accession process was organised led to the EU adopting a revised “enlargement methodology” in 2020 which put greater emphasis on candidate states satisfying certain fundamental accession conditions in order to progress.

The dynamics of enlargement were transformed following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia swiftly submitting applications to join the EU. In June 2022, the European Council agreed to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and to accelerate the process of enlargement to the Western Balkans.

In July 2022, the EU launched accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. Bosnia and Herzegovina was then granted EU candidate status in December 2022.  In December 2023, the European Council granted Georgia EU candidate status and said it would open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova.

Challenges for the EU and the candidate states

European Commission opinions and reports have highlighted several issues for candidate states regarding their capacity to meet the EU’s political and economic accession criteria and the potential to align with the EU rules. The Commission has made recommendations for reforms in relation to the rule of law, including judicial reform, and addressing corruption in several of the EU candidate countries. It has also highlighted the need to ensure stability of political institutions and the protection of fundamental rights in some candidate states.

An important consideration for the EU is whether Ukraine can join while its war with Russia is ongoing, and that two of the other candidate states – Moldova and Georgia – also have breakaway territories backed or controlled by Russia.

The economic gap between the candidate states and the EU is considerable, with GDP per head in each of the candidate states lower than that of the EU’s poorest Member States. This poses questions for the EU budget and could mean EU cohesion funding aimed at poorer Member States shifting from its current recipients to the candidate states if they join the EU. The size of Ukraine’s agricultural sector also presents challenges, given that agricultural spending represents nearly a quarter of EU expenditure. One internal EU projection has suggested that maintaining current EU policies and programmes in their current form would require a budget increase of 21% for an EU of 35 Member States.

Several proposals have been made to reform the EU in order to ensure effective decision-making and policies in an enlarged EU. These include calls to move further away from the unanimity voting principle, which is still maintained for some sensitive policy areas. Other proposals include an enlarged budget and strengthened procedures for addressing rule of law issues in Member States. Many of the EU reforms discussed would have to be agreed unanimously by the Member States and could involve a revision of the EU treaties requiring ratification by the Member States.

EU leaders adopted a declaration in October 2023, acknowledging the need for internal reforms. The European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, said in January 2024 that the Commission would be setting out proposals for reform in a forthcoming communication. The European Parliament adopted reform proposals at the end of February 2024.

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