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The accession process for a new Member State

In this unprecedented and fifth enlargement, the EU has gradually put in place a process to guide and assist applicant countries in preparing for their obligations as Member States, especially in the course of transition, reform and adoption and implementation of the acquis communautaire (Community law)

SUMMARY

Legal basis

According to Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which constitutes the legal basis for any accession, the EU is open to all European countries. However, in order to join the EU, the applicant country must adhere to the principles of Article 6(1) TEU which all the Member States subscribe to and on which the EU is based: freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.

Under Article 49 of the TEU, any European country wishing to join the EU shall apply to the Council which, before taking a decision, must consult the Commission and ask the European Parliament for a favourable opinion adopted by an absolute majority of its members. The Council then makes its decision unanimously.

The Member States and the applicant country come to an agreement on the conditions for accession and adaptation of the treaties and institutions which are entailed by accession. This agreement, or Accession Treaty, is subject to ratification by all the signatory States.

Accession process

All applications for accession are subject to an opinion issued by the Commission and a decision taken by the Council. When the status of an applicant State has been granted to a country, accession negotiations are not necessarily opened immediately. Prior to this, the country must meet a certain number of conditions.

All countries wishing to join the EU must abide by the accession criteria or the Copenhagen criteria, on which the Commission's opinion on any application for accession is based. These criteria were laid down at the European Council meeting in Copenhagen in 1993 and added to at the European Council meeting in Madrid in 1995. They are as follows:

  • political criteria: stability of the institutions safeguarding democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  • economic criteria: existence of a viable market economy, the ability to respond to the pressure of competition and market forces within the EU;
  • the ability to assume the obligations of a Member State stemming from the law and policies of the EU (or the acquis), which include subscribing to the Union's political, economic and monetary aims;
  • having created conditions for integration by adapting their administrative structures.

In the case of the Western Balkan countries, the road map proposed by the Commission in 2005 and endorsed by the Council in 2006 provides that satisfactory performance in meeting the obligations stemming from a country's stabilisation and association agreement (especially the provisions on trade) will be one of the key elements on which the EU will base its scrutiny of any application for accession.

Moreover, the EU's absorption capacity is another key element in any new enlargement. The union's absorption (or integration) capacity must allow integration across institutions and policies to be intensified as new members are integrated during enlargement. These new members must be well prepared for their new status as Member States. The EU's integration capacity also requires enlargement to be supported by public opinion both in the Member States and the applicant states.

Once the countries granted the status of applicant States satisfy these criteria, accession negotiations are ready to begin. The European Council decides whether negotiations should be opened on the basis of an opinion from the Commission.

The accession negotiations are the cornerstone of the accession process and cover adoption, implementation and application of the acquis by the applicant countries. They are intended to help them to prepare to be able to meet their obligations as Member States once they join the EU. The negotiations are conducted individually, based on the own merits of each applicant country, as the degree of preparation may vary from one applicant to another.

The negotiations are conducted within a framework established by the Council on the basis of a Commission proposal, which sets out a programme for the negotiations to be conducted and takes into account the situation and specific characteristics of each applicant country, namely:

  • the aim, namely accession
  • the negotiation principles and procedures;
  • the points to be negotiated, such as financial aspects, temporary exemptions or safeguard measures in specific areas of the acquis (such as free movement of persons, structural policies or agriculture), which may be invoked throughout the negotiations;
  • the link between political and economic reform in the applicant country and the negotiations;
  • the conclusion of the negotiations, which remains open;

The negotiations are based on the acquis which is divided into chapters, each of which corresponds to a different area of it. The negotiations start with a preparatory phase or a screening of the acquis which is conducted by the Commission. This is intended to assess the degree of preparation of applicant countries, to familiarise them with the acquis and identify the chapters which are to be opened on the basis of the benchmarks defined for each one. The benchmarks cover the essential preparatory stages for future alignment with the acquis and complying with the contractual obligations under the association agreements linked with it. The Council decides unanimously on the benchmarks or opening of a chapter on the basis of the Commission's recommendations.

The negotiations take place in the course of bilateral inter-governmental conferences involving all the Member States and the applicant county.

The negotiations on any given chapter are concluded when the applicant country fulfils the benchmarks defined for closing a chapter (such as legislative measures, administrative or judicial instances, aspects of the acquis actually implemented, a viable market economy for the economic chapters) and when it accepts the draft common position of the EU prepared by the Commission and adopted unanimously by the Council. The closed chapters may, however, be reopened if the applicant countries no longer satisfy the conditions.

As is provided for by the negotiation framework, the accession negotiations may be suspended in the event of a serious and persistent violation of the principles on which the EU is founded. The Commission may then recommend, either on its own initiative or at the request of a third of the Member States, that negotiations be suspended and recommend conditions for them to be reopened. The Council adopts the recommendation by a qualified majority after consulting the applicant country concerned.

Once the negotiations on all the chapters have been completed, the accession processes comes to an end and an agreement, called the Accession Treaty, may be concluded between the Member States and the applicant country to mark accession. However, the Council decides unanimously whether to conclude the process after receiving the opinion of the Commission and the assent of the European Parliament. The Accession Treaty is intended to incorporate:

  • the accession date
  • the results of the accession negotiations, conditions for accession and the safeguard or transitional measures for areas which the Commission's most recent assessment identifies as needing more intensive work;
  • adaptation of the institutions and treaties and the distribution of votes in the Council and European Parliament, the number of European Members of Parliament, members of the Committee of Regions, etc.;

During the period between the conclusion of the Accession Treaty and the accession date, the treaty is subject to ratification by all the Member States and the future Member State. The applicant country then becomes an acceding State and continues the process of accession by making changes in the areas where there are still shortcomings and in which progress must be made under the watchful eye of the Commission.

Instruments in the accession process

A pre-accession strategy is defined for each accession process and for each applicant country in order to help them to prepare for their future accession. This strategy provides for structures and instruments in the process (set out below) which assist the applicant countries in their preparation.

Bilateral agreements concluded between the EU and each applicant country provide a bilateral framework for dialogue and negotiations. Examples of these are the association agreement and customs union with Turkey and the stabilisation and association agreements for the Western Balkan States.

Political and economic dialogues on political criteria and economic and convergence criteria take place between the EU and each applicant country to consolidate the process. The results of these are incorporated in the accession negotiations.

Accession partnerships for each applicant country form an individual framework to help them prepare for accession. They set out in detail the principles and priority areas (in the form of short-and medium-term priorities) based on the Copenhagen criteria in respect of which they must strengthen their institutions and infrastructure and/or legislation, or carry out reforms. The accession partnerships also constitute a guide for the financial aid provided by Community funds.

National programmes for the adoption of the acquis (NPAA) are provided for by the accession partnerships and are drawn up by each applicant country. They set out a timetable for implementing the priorities defined by the accession partnership and the human and financial resources allocated to this purpose.

Participation in EU programmes, agencies and committees is open to applicant countries and enables them to take part under the same terms as the Member States. The applicant countries make a financial contribution, part of which may be funded by the pre-accession financial assistance. However, the applicant countries only have the status of observers in the programmes in which they participate and attend the meetings of these programmes' monitoring committees only when they concerned. Their role in agencies varies from one agency to another and ranges from partial to full participation.

Participation in the EU programmes, agencies and committees is intended to promote cooperation between Member States and exchanges in order to familiarise the applicant countries with Community policies and instruments. Various policy areas, such as education, training, youth, environment, health, inter alia, may be involved.

Commission monitoring starts as soon as the request for accession is submitted and continues until the applicant country actually becomes a member of the EU.

Monitoring takes the form of annual reports (Regular Reports) in which the Commission assesses how ready the applicant countries are to assume their obligations as Member States. The reports are all structured in a similar fashion and comprise a detailed assessment of the Copenhagen criteria including a chapter-by-chapter evaluation of the adoption and implementation of the acquis.

More regularly, with the aim of underpinning its annual assessment, the Commission has set up a procedure for monitoring the course of accession negotiations, which is based on the negotiation framework and is intended to assess the applicant countries' progress in aligning their legislation with and implementing the acquis. This assessment is published regularly in the monitoring reports.

Civil society dialogue is intended to involve civil society in the EU and the applicant countries in the accession process and has assumed a higher profile with the need for civil society engagement in the EU; in this specific context it is also intended to increase mutual understanding and knowledge.

Pre-accession aid is intended to support the applicant countries' transition and reforms with a view to strengthening the institutions and putting in place the infrastructures required to align them with and implement the acquis. It is also designed to promote regional and cross-border cooperation, regional development and prepare applicant countries to participate in the EU Structural Funds.

Pre-accession assistance and the pre-accession process are interlinked in the sense that the former is intended to support the latter at the same time determined by it. For this reason, this assistance, which is granted in the medium term, must be flexible in order to reflect the progress achieved by the applicant countries and the new priorities identified. Originally, the main financial instrument, the Phare programme, which was set up in order to support the process of reforms and economic and political transition in Hungary and Poland in 1989, very quickly became the main instrument for aid to prepare for the accession of the central and eastern European applicant countries. It was also reinforced by the pre-accession structural instrument (ISPA) and the pre-accession agricultural instrument (SAPARD) for the period 2000-2006.

For the period 2007-13, the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) provides the financial aid for applicant countries (and potential applicant countries from the Western Balkan States). The IPA, which is intended to be a flexible instrument, distributes financial aid depending on the progress made by the beneficiary countries and their needs, as indicated by the annual assessments and strategic documents prepared by the Commission.

Moreover, applicant countries may also receive cofunding from international financial institutions with which the Commission has signed agreements. These agreements not only allow cooperation between these institutions to be reinforced but also loans and funds deployed in the pre-accession process to be channelled more effectively. The European Investment Bank (EIB), as the EU's accredited financial institution, also plays a considerable role in this area.

Background

The EU has been through five successive enlargements since it was set up in 1957. It has gone from six founding Member States to the current twenty seven Member States. The 2004 and 2007 enlargements were unprecedented both in terms of the number of countries which were to join and the challenges their accession presented for the EU, as the political and economic situation in the majority of these countries required more preparation before they could join. Moreover, the EU itself had to make preparations in terms of its absorption capacity in order to be able to accommodate them. This is why the enlargement process was intensified to support the countries' transition and reform processes and hence preparation for accession, so that they would be capable of meeting their obligations as Member States at the moment of their accession.

In keeping with the wishes of the founding fathers and the spirit of the treaties, the EU is seeking to achieve its goal of being a space of unity in diversity and a promoter of stability and prosperity and is bringing together countries which share a common commitment and common values namely freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

This fact sheet is not legally binding on the European Commission, it does not claim to be exhaustive and does not represent an official interpretation of the text of the Treaty.

Last updated: 28.02.2007
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