Enlargement is the process whereby countries join the EU. Since it was founded in 1957, the EU has grown from 6 countries to 28.
Over the past 50 years, widening EU membership has promoted economic growth and strengthened democratic forces in countries emerging from dictatorship.
The 6 founding members of the EU in 1957 were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Several other West European countries joined after 1973.
Following the collapse of their regimes in 1989, many former communist countries from central and eastern Europe became EU members in 2 waves, between 2004 and 2007. In 2013, Croatia became the 28th country to join.
The Treaty on European Union states that any European country may apply for membership if it respects the EU's democratic values and is committed to promoting them.
But specifically, a country can only join if it meets all the membership criteria:
The process has 3 stages (all subject to approval by all existing EU countries):
When the negotiations and accompanying reforms have been completed to the satisfaction of both sides, the country can join the EU – again, if all existing EU countries agree.
Currently the EU has offered the prospect of membership to 8 countries: Albania, Turkey, Iceland and all the countries of the former Yugoslavia (except Slovenia and Croatia, already EU members).
6 of these have been granted official candidate status:
Manuscript updated in November 2014
This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series