Article 49 of the Amsterdam Treaty stated that: "Any European state may apply to become a Member of the Union. It shall address its application to the Council, which shall act unanimously after consulting the Commission and after receiving the assent of the European Parliament, which shall act by an absolute majority of its component members."
The Copenhagen European Council in 1993 expanded on these criteria, stating that: "Accession will take place as soon as an associated country is able to assume the obligations of membership by satisfying the economic and political conditions required".
The Council agreed the following basic standards, often described as the "Copenhagen Criteria", that all countries must meet before membership of the EU;
- Stable institutions that guarantee human rights, democracy, the rule of law, respect for and protection of minorities, (the Political Criteria);
- The existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with market forces and competition (the Economic Criteria).
- Adoption and implementation of the entire body of EU law (the acquis communautaire). This includes instituting the administrative and judicial capacity of current Member States. The acquis is divided into 31 thematic chapters for the purpose of negotiations - Complete list of the 31 Chapters
A candidate will submit its own "position" on each chapter to the EU. The EU then will draw its position and the chapter will be considered "open". When a final position is agreed between the EU and the candidate, the chapter is provisionally closed. Much of the negotiation revolves around requests for transitional periods which allow the candidates more time to align with EU standards.
Negotiations are completed when all the chapters of the acquis have been closed. The results of the negotiations are written into a draft accession treaty, which is submitted to the Council for approval and to the European Parliament for assent. The Accession Treaty is then submitted to the Member States and to the candidate country to ratify. In some states this requires a referendum, depending on individual national conditions. The treaty then becomes part of each country’s law and the candidate country becomes a Member State on an agreed date. This final process between closing negotiations and accession can take around two years.
How is progress measured in the Accession Countries?
The progress of each of the countries in the accession process is formally reviewed annually by the European Commission in its comprehensive Progress Reports. For instance, the Commission concluded from the reports published on 9 October 2002 that negotiations could be completed with the front-running 10 candidates by the end of 2002 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia), but they would need to continue their preparations until accession in 2004.
Once the Commission has issued its progress reports, the European Council, representing Member States, confirms the political progress and targets for the accession countries. Member States must agree unanimously on each stage of the accession process.
The Commission also holds more regular meetings with the accession countries to review progress and identify gaps, which are then discussed at official level in Brussels.
Detailed plans for action by candidates and the EU are set out in the Accession Partnerships, which are revised annually. These spell out priority areas where significant work is needed for the applicant to reach the standards necessary for accession to the EU. They also help to determine where and how EU pre-accession aid to the applicants will be spent to the best effect.
Who are the main players in the Enlargement Negotiations?
Enlargement Working Group
The day-to-day enlargement negotiations take place in the EU's Enlargement Working Group (EWG). The EWG meets weekly in Brussels, attended by officials of the EU member states and the Commission, under the rotating Presidency of the EU.
The Presidency is responsible for ensuring negotiations proceed to the targets set by the European Council. Ireland currently holds the presidency and will do until the Netherlands takes over in July 2004.
Irish EU Presidency website
The Commission is responsible for drawing up the draft common position on each chapter of the acquis, which is passed to member states for comment. The common position is then put to the acceding country for response. If the response is satisfactory, the chapter is closed. The Commission remains in close contact with the applicant countries in order to smooth out problems that arise from the negotiations. European Commission
The Parliament is notified how the negotiations are progressing and gives its assent to the accession treaties which needs each member state to ratify (approve), usually through an Act of Parliament and in some countries a referendum. This ensures that each Member State is able to express their views on enlargement through the ratification debates.
The European Council is the name given to the regular meetings or summits between the Heads of State and Government of the Member States. While Ministers of the Member States meet regularly throughout the year, European Councils are the only regular meetings of the Heads of State or Government of the member states, plus the President of the European Commission. The European Council meets at least four times a year, the more important Councils tend to happen towards the end of each country's Presidency. Foreign Ministers and other Ministers also attend by invitation (e.g. Finance or Home Affairs). The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, represents the UK.
The Member State currently holding the Presidency hosts the European Council. The Presidency of the Council of Ministers and the European Council rotates between the Member States every six months.