The enlargement of the European Union (EU)

Enlargement policy - a very important political instrument of the EU

The enlargement policy has contributed to making Central and Eastern Europe modern and well-functioning democracies and has fostered far-reaching reforms in the candidate countries and the potential candidate countries.

It is in the interest of all European citizens to have countries with a stable democracy and a prosperous market economy as their neighbour countries. The enlargement is a carefully controlled process which encourages the reform efforts in the relevant countries by bringing about peace, stability, prosperity, and democratisation, ensures the respect of human rights, and strengthens law all over Europe.

Since the accession of Croatia on 1 July 2013 the EU has had 28 Member States.

There have been seven enlargement rounds so far:

  • 01/01/1973: Accession of Denmark, Ireland and Great Britain
  • 01/01/1981: Accession of Greece
  • 01/01/1986: Accession of Portugal and Spain
  • 01/01/1995: Accession of Austria, Sweden and Finland
  • 01/05/2004: Accession of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Cyprus
  • 01/01/2007: Accession of Bulgaria and Romania
  • 01/07/2013: Accession of Croatia

Conditions for accession

Countries wishing to join the European Union have to fulfil certain criteria which the European Council of the Heads of State and Government of the EU set out in Copenhagen in 1993.

According to the Copenhagen criteria a candidate country must fulfil the following requirements to become a member of the EU:

  • Political criterion: “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”;
  • Economic criterion: “a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces”;
  • Acquis criterion: the ability to take on all obligations of membership i.e. the entire legislation and policy of the EU (the so-called “Acquis communautaire”) as well as the agreement with the objectives of the Political Union and the Economic and Monetary Union.

The accession talks are not about a change in EU rules but about how and when the candidate will take over, implement and apply the EU rules. The pace of the negotiations depends on the progress made in the individual country. It is thus in the interest of the candidate country to carry the required reforms out rapidly and efficiently.

For the (potential) candidate countries of the Western Balkan the EU provides for a Stabilisation and Association Process in the course of which the countries concerned have to successfully complete a multi-stage rapprochement process before the accession negotiations are actually launched. An important step in this process is the conclusion of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) which, in addition to economic association, provides also for the adoption of parts of the acquis as well as cooperation in a great number of policy areas.

Annually the European Commission examines the progress made by the candidate and potential candidate countries. The current progress reports are available at:

EU enlargement:

Candidate countries and potential candidate countries

At the moment, there are five candidate countries: The former Yugoslav Republic Macedonia (application: 2004; status as candidate country since 2005; negotiations not yet opened), Montenegro (membership application: 2008; status as candidate country since 2010; negotiations since June 2012), Turkey (application: 1987; status as candidate country since 1999; negotiations opened since 2005), Serbia (application: 2009; status as candidate country since 2012; negotiations opened since January 2014) and Albania (application: 2009; status as candidate country since June 2014; negotiations not yet opened.

Iceland’s EU accession talks have been suspended since May 2013. In March 2015 the government of Iceland withdrew its application for EU membership; for this reason Iceland has since May 2015 no longer been listed as a candidate country.

The European Council held out the prospect of becoming EU members to the European Union to all Western Balkan countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Kosovo are therefore potential candidate countries.

published at 16.05.2018, Kommunikation und Service (Abteilung Präs. 5)