Journey towards EU accession
Since its early stages in the 1950s, the European Union has grown from six to 27 member states. This means that the EU is now home to roughly 500 million inhabitants and that it has equally grown into one of the most powerful trading entities in the world, driven by its Single Market economy.
Indeed, the scope of the EU is set to increase even further in the future through the potential accession of additional neighbouring states. The next one in line is Croatia, which is expected to join the European community of nations in July 2013.
So what does becoming an EU member state actually involve?
To embark on the journey towards EU membership, a country has to file an official application for candidacy. In order to be granted candidate status, the application needs to receive green light from both the Council and the European Commission. This decision is made on the basis of the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, which any state wishing to become a member of the EU needs to comply with.
The Copenhagen Criteria are a set of rules that lay out a range of standards that EU member states need to adhere to. These include political and economic criteria, such as the protection of human rights and the capacity to compete in the European market.
Should the country in question not comply with the Copenhagen Criteria, then it will not be allowed to move forward in the application process until it does so.
On the other hand, if an applicant country meets the criteria, accession negotiations between this country and the member states can officially begin. The candidate country then enters into a phase that opens up the floor for discussions with member states about the integration process. Typically, this happens in the form of intergovernmental negotiations between EU member states and the country wishing to join the community.
The accession negotiations can be considered the centrepiece of a country’s accession process and they largely revolve around the so-called community acquis. In order to become an EU member state, the candidate country is required to adopt and implement the acquis, which is a set of rules, including both rights and obligations, that all member states of the EU have to comply with.
This acquis spans across a total of 35 different policy areas of the EU, which are commonly known as ‘chapters’. The chapters cover a multitude of areas, including competition, economic and monetary union, agriculture and the environment, to name but a few.
Negotiations typically begin with preparatory work that aims to determine the degree to which a candidate country’s legislation coincides with the various chapters of the acquis and to decide where modifications of the country’s legislation may be necessary. On the basis of this assessment, the European institutions then determine which chapters of the acquis will be subject to negotiations with the candidate country in question. The institutions can equally determine so-called ‘benchmarks’ that set out the requirements this country needs to meet in order to open or close a specific negotiation chapter.
Once the negotiations of the chapters are completed, a so-called Accession Treaty will be drawn up that requires the approval of the Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament. When this stage is completed, the Accession Treaty will have to be signed by all EU member states and the candidate country itself, which will subsequently become an ‘acceding country’.
The final step is the actual ratification of the Accession Treaty, upon which the acceding country will become a full member of the EU.
At the moment, Croatia is the only acceding country to the EU and it is expected to become an official member state once its Accession Treaty receives ratification from all the other EU states.
There are, however, several other countries that are in the process of applying for EU membership. Five countries hold ‘candidate status’, namely Iceland, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Of these countries, only Iceland and Turkey have started the actual negotiation process while the others are still waiting in the queue for negotiations to be launched.
The duration of the accession process can vary significantly, depending on how fast an applicant country can implement all the necessary reforms. In the case of Croatia, the process was launched in 2003, lasting approximately one decade.
David Casa is a Nationalist MEP.