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The EU enlargement process

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The EU accession process is long and minutely planned.

EU-summit in Bruxellesl 2009
EU-summit in Bruxelles 2009© picture-alliance/dpa
After an accession application has been submitted, the EU assesses whether the country meets the required criteria and only then decides whether to make a formal offer of membership.

The process is formally launched when a country submits an application to become a member of the European Union. This application must be addressed to the Council of the European Union; the Council then asks the Commission to assess the application. This assessment is conducted on the basis of established criteria and conditions.

The European Commission then issues its recommendations for further steps in an “avis” or opinion. Depending on how close the applicant country is to fulfilling the accession criteria, the European Commission will recommend that the Council grant it “candidate” status and perhaps also that accession negotiations be started. If the Commission does not recommend granting the country candidate status, it normally specifies benchmarks that the applicant country has to meet in order to qualify for accession.

On the basis of the Commission’s opinion, the Council then decides unanimously whether to accept the membership application and whether accession negotiations should be launched. The European Council formally decides whether to grant the country candidate status on the basis of the Commission’s recommendations.

Negotiating mandate and framework

Accession negotiations can begin as soon as the Council has granted the Commission a negotiating mandate. In certain cases the Commission is required to submit a draft negotiating framework in advance. The negotiations themselves focus on when and under what conditions the candidate country is to adopt the acquis communautaire – the rights and obligations attached to being a member of the EU. The acquis – the substance of which is non‑negotiable – is divided into 35 policy areas, called chapters, to make the negotiations manageable.

In practice, negotiations take place at two levels. Meeting as the Council, the EU member states adopt a negotiating framework. They also discuss and reach agreement on the Commission’s negotiating mandate for each individual chapter. The Commission then negotiates directly with the candidate country. Negotiations on individual chapters are opened and closed at intergovernmental conferences known as “accession conferences” organised by the EU Presidency.

Since 2004, each negotiating framework has included a “suspension clause” so that negotiations can be suspended should the candidate country seriously and persistently breach the principles on which the EU is founded – freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law. Under this clause, decisions on both the suspension and the resumption of negotiations are taken by the European Council by qualified majority after hearing the candidate state, upon the recommendation of the European Commission acting either on its own initiative or at the request of one‑third of EU member states.

The negotiating framework also contains a clause noting that the EU’s capacity to absorb a new member must also be taken into consideration.

Within the scope of the negotiating framework with Montenegro, the negotiations centred for the first time around the rule of law chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom and security). From now on, they will be dealt with at the outset and examined in greater detail and at longer length. What is more, overall progress in the negotiations will be linked to the progress made in these chapters. The process has since been adopted for the negotiating framework with Serbia, within which Serbia’s normalisation process with Kosovo is now just as central as the rule of law chapters. This process is closely bound up with the accession negotiations through chapter 35.

The reforms that a candidate country needs to implement in order to join the EU are set out in an accession partnership. This also provides the framework for the financial support granted by the EU to help the country prepare for accession.

Screening and monitoring

IIn order to prepare the accession negotiations, the European Commission conducts an analytical examination (“screening”) for each chapter to determine the extent to which the candidate country’s national law deviates from the EU acquis and thus requires modification. The idea is to identify potential shortcomings and problems regarding the implementation of the acquis and to determine the present need for transitional periods and solutions. The European Commission then informs the Council of the results of the screening and, if appropriate, recommends that negotiations on specific chapters be opened. It may also recommend that the Council stipulate specific benchmarks that the candidate country must meet before a chapter can be opened. For example, the candidate country can be required to submit a detailed action plan for the adoption of the EU acquis.

Until the country’s accession, the European Commission monitors its progress in adopting the EU acquis. It submits regular reports and strategy papers to the Council and the European Parliament informing them of the candidate country’s progress towards meeting any benchmarks that have been set and towards adopting and/or implementing the EU acquis.

The duration of the accession negotiations depends on the speed with which the candidate country implements reforms and makes progress on the acquis, and can thus vary considerably from one country to the next. Even if the aim of the negotiations is the accession of the candidate country to the EU, the outcome of the negotiations remains open until the very end.

Conclusion of the negotiations and accession treaty

If all EU member states agree that the conditions for concluding a given chapter have been fulfilled, that chapter may be provisionally closed. The chapters are only finally closed upon the conclusion of the accession negotiations as a whole.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, an accession treaty is drafted, which incorporates the agreements reached on transitional periods and safeguard clauses, on the necessary modifications to the EU institutions and treaties (e.g. weighting of votes and distribution of seats) and the envisaged date of accession. The accession treaty must be approved by the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the European Parliament before it can be signed by the EU member states and the candidate country. Upon signing the treaty, the candidate country becomes an “acceding country” and thus enjoys certain privileges pending its accession. A country that has reached this stage of the accession process may, for example, attend and speak at EU meetings as an “active observer”, although it does not yet have any voting rights.

The accession treaty must then be ratified by all EU member states and by the country seeking membership. Once this process has been concluded, the accession treaty will enter into force on the date provided and the acceding country will on that day become a full member of the EU.

Read more on the EU enlargement process:

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