Joining the European Union confers many benefits to a country, including access to the world’s largest single market and a say in how the rules of that market are made. It also provides opportunities to take part in EU-wide programs in areas such as education, environment, research, and development.
This membership comes with some costs – both financial and in terms of the loss of some sovereign powers to EU institutions. However, for many countries, the benefits of membership far outweigh the costs.
So, How Does a Country Go About Joining the European Union?
The process starts with a country applying to the European Council, which is made up of the heads of state or governments of all EU member countries. This application must be unanimous – all existing members must agree to the new country joining.
The next step is for the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to assess whether the applicant country meets the so-called “Copenhagen criteria”. These were set down at a meeting of EU leaders in Copenhagen in 1993.
In order to join the EU, the Copenhagen criteria have several stipulations that must be met. These criteria include:
- Stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities;
- A functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU;
- The ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic, and monetary union.
If the European Commission deems that an applicant country meets these criteria, negotiations on membership can begin. These “accession negotiations” cover a range of issues, including the country’s laws (called the “acquis communautaire”), financial contributions to the EU budget, and reform of public administration.
The acquis communautaire is the body of EU law that all member states must implement. It includes legislation in a range of areas, from environmental protection to customs arrangements.
An applicant country must agree to bring its laws and regulations in line with the acquis communautaire before it can become a member of the EU. This process of “alignment” can take many years and is often one of the most difficult aspects of negotiations.
Once an applicant country has fulfilled all the conditions for membership, including ratification of the accession treaty by all member states and approval in a referendum in the applicant country, it becomes a full member of the European Union
Candidate country status is granted once the European Commission has assessed that the country meets the Copenhagen criteria and is “sufficiently prepared” to begin negotiations. This means that the country has made enough progress in reforming its institutions and laws to be able to take on the obligations of EU membership.
Currently, there are seven candidate countries: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Moldova. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have been granted potential candidate status.
Ukraine and Moldova are the most recent countries to be granted candidate status, on February 2022, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The negotiations are the process through which an applicant country agrees to bring its laws and regulations in line with the acquis communautaire. This process of “alignment” can be quite lengthy and difficult, as it requires a great deal of reform in the applicant country.
In the negotiations phase, the candidate country’s adoption and implementation of the acquis into the many different policy fields like energy, fisheries, agriculture, taxation, transport, judiciary, and fundamental rights are assessed.
The European Commission monitors compliance with the acquis and publishes reports periodically evaluating the progress made by the candidate country.
Financial and transitional arrangements are also discussed and decided in the negotiations. This includes how much the candidate country will contribute to the EU budget and receive back in return, as well as what transitional periods the country may request for certain policies.
When all the issues have been agreed upon, the European Council (made up of the Heads of State or Governments of all EU member countries) formally adopts the decision to invite the candidate country to become a member. This is usually done at a summit meeting.
The Accession Treaty
The accession treaty is a legal document setting out the terms and conditions of a country’s membership of the EU. It is signed by the applicant country and by all existing member states. The treaty must then be ratified by all signatories, which usually involves a vote in the parliaments of all EU countries as well as in the parliament of the applicant country. In some cases, a referendum may also be held.
Once the treaty has been ratified, the applicant country becomes a full member of the EU on the date set out in the treaty.
How Long Does the Process Take?
The process of joining the EU can take many years, and there is no set time frame. It usually takes around 10 years from the point at which a country applies for candidacy status to the point at which it becomes a full member.
The length of time can vary depending on the country and the progress it has made in Reform. Factors such as national and geo-political considerations can also play a role in how quickly or slowly the process moves.
The longest accession process so far has been that of Malta and Cyprus, which took 14 years from the point of application to membership. The shortest accession process was that of Slovenia, which took just five years between submitting its application in 1996 and becoming a full member in 2004.
The most recent country to join the EU was Croatia, which became a member in 2013.
What Are the Benefits of Joining the EU?
Joining the European Union comes with many benefits. These include:
-> Improved trade and investment opportunities: As a member of the EU, a country has access to the world’s largest single market of more than 500 million consumers. This provides improved opportunities for trade and investment, as well as greater certainty and predictability.
-> Enhanced economic growth and competitiveness: EU membership can help to stimulate economic growth and make a country more competitive. This is because businesses have greater access to new markets and can benefit from economies of scale.
-> Improved standards of living: EU membership has been shown to lead to higher levels of investment in education and research, which can in turn lead to improved standards of living.
-> A stronger voice in international affairs: As a member of the EU, a country has a stronger voice in international affairs. This is because the EU speaks with one voice on issues such as trade, development, and climate change.
-> Greater security and stability: Membership of the EU can help to promote peace and stability, both within Europe and beyond. This is because the EU is founded on the values of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights.
-> Increased cooperation on issues such as crime and terrorism: As a member of the EU, a country can cooperate with other members on issues such as crime and terrorism. This is because the EU has a number of agencies and programs that aim to tackle these issues.
In short, EU membership can bring many benefits to a country in terms of economic growth, trade, investment, standards of living, security, and stability.
Membership in the European Union is a lengthy but rewarding process with many benefits for the countries that are involved. The complexity and time commitment are worth it for the trade opportunities, security measures, and stability that come along with being a part of this important international organization.