The process of joining the EU (accession) broadly consists of 3 stages:
- When a country is ready it becomes an official candidate for membership – but this does not necessarily mean that formal negotiations have been opened.
- The candidate moves on to formal membership negotiations, a process that involves the adoption of established EU law, preparations to be in a position to properly apply and enforce it and implementation of judicial, administrative, economic and other reforms necessary for the country to meet the conditions for joining, known as accession criteria.
- When the negotiations and accompanying reforms have been completed to the satisfaction of both sides, the country can join the EU.
Membership negotiations – in detail
Membership negotiations cannot start until all EU governments agree, in the form of a unanimous decision by the EU Council, on a framework or mandate for negotiations with the candidate country.
Negotiations take place between ministers and ambassadors of the EU governments and the candidate country in what is called an intergovernmental conference.
Negotiations under each chapter are based on the following elements:
- Screening – the Commission carries out a detailed examination, together with the candidate country, of each policy field (chapter), to determine how well the country is prepared. The findings by chapter are presented by the Commission to the Member States in the form of a screening report. The conclusion of this report is a recommendation of the Commission to either open negotiations directly or to require that certain conditions – opening benchmarks - should first be met.
- Negotiating positions – before negotiations can start, the candidate country must submit its position and the EU must adopt a common position. For most chapters the EU will set closing benchmarks in this position which need to be met by the Candidate Country before negotiations in the policy field concerned can be closed. For chapter 23 and 24, the Commission is proposing that in the future these chapters would be opened on the basis of action plans, with interim benchmarks to be met based on their implementation before closing benchmarks are set.
The pace of the negotiations then depends on the speed of reform and alignment with EU laws in each country. The duration of negotiations can vary – starting at the same time as another country is no guarantee of finishing at the same time.
Concluding the negotiations
- Closing the chapters
No negotiations on any individual chapter are closed until every EU government is satisfied with the candidate's progress in that policy field, as analysed by the Commission.
And the whole negotiation process is only concluded definitively once every chapter has been closed.
- Accession treaty
This is the document that cements the country's membership of the EU. It contains the detailed terms and conditions of membership, all transitional arrangements and deadlines, as well as details of financial arrangements and any safeguard clauses.
It is not final and binding until it:
- wins the support of the EU Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament
- is signed by the candidate country and representatives of all existing EU countries
- is ratified by the candidate country and every individual EU country, according to their constitutional rules (parliamentary vote, referendum, etc.).
- Acceding country
Once the treaty is signed, however, the candidate becomes an acceding country. This means it is expected to become a full EU member on the date laid down in the treaty, providing the treaty has been ratified.
In the interim, it benefits from special arrangements, such as being able to comment on draft EU proposals, communications, recommendations or initiatives, and “active observer status” on EU bodies and agencies (it is entitled to speak, but not vote).
Special process for Western Balkans
The EU's relations with the Western Balkan countries take place within a special framework known as the stabilisation and association process. It has 3 aims:
- stabilising the countries politically and encouraging their swift transition to a market economy
- promoting regional cooperation
- eventual membership of the EU
A country is offered the prospect of membership (it becomes a potential candidate). This means it should be offered official candidate status when it is ready.
The process helps the countries concerned build their capacity to adopt and implement EU law, as well as European and international standards. It is based on an ever-closer partnership, with the EU offering a mixture of:
- trade concessions (duty-free access to EU markets)
- economic and financial assistance
- assistance for reconstruction, development and stabilisation
- stabilisation and association agreements – a far-reaching contractual relationship with the EU, entailing mutual rights and obligations.
Each country moves step by step towards EU membership as it fulfils its commitments in the stabilisation and association process. The Commission assesses progress made in annual progress reports published each Autumn.