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EuropeEnlargement: how do countries join the EU?

Enlargement: how do countries join the EU?

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EU enlargement is a way to foster peace and stability in Europe, increase prosperity for Europeans and create opportunities for companies.

Countries preparing to join benefit from closer ties with the EU, stronger support for fundamental rights as well as from funding and expertise from the EU to make the process easier.

In December 2023, EU leaders announced that the EU would recognise Georgia as a candidate country and would start accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. The accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova formally started on 25 June 2024. In March 2024, EU leaders also agreed to launch accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Which countries want to join the EU?

The EU has recognised Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Ukraine and Türkiye as candidate countries for EU membership, though accession negotiations with Türkiye have been frozen since 2018. This is something MEPs had called for on various occasions due to concerns over the situation in Türkiye, including the rule of law and media freedom.

Kosovo is a potential candidate country.

Who can join the EU? What are the requirements for EU membership?

In order to apply for EU membership, a country has to be European and respect the EU’s democratic values. It also needs stable institutions guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law; a functioning market economy; and the ability to take on and carry out the obligations of EU membership.

What support do candidate countries and potential candidate countries benefit from?

Candidate countries and potential candidate countries benefit from EU funding, detailed policy advice, as well as Association Agreements, giving far-reaching access to the EU’s internal market.

How does the enlargement process work?

A country can become an official candidate once it meets basic political, economic and reform criteria. It can then start formal negotiations on 35 chapters covering many different policy areas with the EU.

Once negotiations and reforms have been completed, an accession treaty is finalised, which needs to be ratified by all existing EU member states and the country itself before the country can join the EU.

What is the history of EU enlargement?

The EU started in 1952 as the European Communities with six founding members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and Netherlands. The first enlargement took part in 1973 when Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined.

In the 1980s, Greece joined in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal five years later after emerging from dictatorships in the 1970s. In 1985 Greenland, which is an autonomous part of Denmark with a local government responsible for judicial affairs, policing and natural resources, became the first territory to leave the EU.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union changed everything again. In 1995 Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU. This was followed by two waves of Central and Eastern European countries joining. The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia as well as Cyprus and Malta joined in 2004. In 2007, it was the turn of Bulgaria and Romania.

Croatia became the most recent country to join the EU in 2013. Meanwhile, the UK left the EU in 2020.

What is the current situation for EU enlargement?

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine submitting applications for EU membership. The EU formally launched accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine in June 2024, while Georgia was recognised as a candidate country in December 2023.

The EU is also keen to give Western Balkan countries, who have been part of the enlargement process for a long time, a clear path to membership to help stabilise the region and promote fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations.

What is the role of the Parliament?

MEPs debate and vote on annual progress reports for each country, which is an opportunity to identify areas of concerns.

The Parliament’s approval is also required before a country can join the EU.

Parliament has remained supportive of the enlargement process. President Roberta Metsola called it the EU’s strongest geopolitical tool in a speech to the European Council in October 2023. “That is why the European Parliament had called for Ukraine and Moldova to receive EU candidate status,” she said. “This status gives a clear European perspective to these nations and serves as a powerful impetus for advancing democratic reforms. A quick look back at the last 20 years can illustrate the transformative power of enlargement. That is why we want to go the next step by the end of the year if those countries are ready.”

On various occasions Parliament called for the EU’s doors to be opened to Ukraine and Moldova. In July 2022 MEPs welcomed the Council decision to start the accession process with the two countries.

Parliament continues to support the accession of the Western Balkans countries to the EU. In a resolution adopted in June 2020, MEPs call on the EU to do more to make the enlargement process for these countries a success.

In a resolution adopted in December 2023, Parliament called on the EU to open accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine as well as with Bosnia and Herzegovina, provided the country takes certain reform steps. MEPs also called for a clear timetable to conclude negotiations by the end of this decade and for Georgia to be recognised as a candidate country.

Source: European Commission

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