Enlargement is the process whereby countries join the EU. Since it was founded in 1957, the EU has grown from 6 member countries to 28.
Any European country that respects the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law may apply to become a member of the EU. A valid application triggers a series of evaluations in the light of the so-called Copenhagen criteria. These may result in a country being given the status of a 'candidate country'. If the country is sufficiently advanced in fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria, accession negotiations start: the applicants have to implement the body of EU law before they may become a member state.
When this process is completed, an 'accession treaty' is drawn up and signed by the candidate country and the EU Member States. The country can join the EU only once this treaty has been formally approved by the European Parliament and ratified by the candidate country and all the existing Member States.
There are currently seven candidate countries and potential candidates to which the EU has offered the prospect of membership.
The last country which has successfully completed the accession negotiations is Croatia. It became a member of the EU on 1 July 2013.
On the path towards EU integration
- Five candidate countries: Albania, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. Negotiations have already begun with Serbia, Montenegro and Turkey.
- Two potential candidates: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo*.
- Three sets of conditions for EU membership: they are called the Copenhagen criteria as they were agreed by EU leaders at their summit in Copenhagen in 1993.
- Every step towards membership requires the unanimous approval of the Member States.
- The Commission issues annual progress reports on the countries working towards EU membership.
Each year in the autumn, the European Commission adopts its 'Enlargement package': an overview of enlargement strategy and progress achieved towards EU accession in the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia as well as Kosovo*) and Turkey.
Progress report 2015
On 10 November 2015 the European Commission published its annual overview of enlargement policy and the progress made towards EU accession in the Western Balkans and Turkey.