EU enlargement has been a common feature of EU history since the first enlargement in 1973. Since it was founded in 1957, the EU has grown from six countries to 28. More countries are expected to join in the future. The EU believes that enlargement is beneficial for both the EU and the countries that want to join. It is supposed to promote democracy, the rule of law and economic growth via the single market.
How does European enlargement work?
According to the treaties, EU membership is open to any European country that respects and promotes EU values. These include human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, human rights, and the rule of law. The potential candidate must submit an application to the country that currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union.
The European Commission makes an initial evaluation of the candidate and submits it to the Council of the European Union. The council then decides whether to consider the applicant as a candidate country.
Once accepted, the candidate must take part in accession negotiations. The Commission investigates the candidate to see if it complies with the rights and obligations of member states. These rights and obligations are contained in 35 chapters, each of which covers a specific policy area, such as economic policy, energy or transport. Benchmarks set in every chapter guide the candidate towards fulfilling the obligations.
Once the candidate has reformed its laws to match EU policy, the agreements are set out in an accession treaty. This must be signed by the candidate country and all EU member states. This means that any current member can block new applications. The treaty must also win the support of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. Once achieved, the candidate country becomes an acceding country.
After the accession treaty has been signed, it must be endorsed by all member states. The acceding country then becomes an EU member state on the date specified in the accession treaty.
The European Economic Community (EEC) was created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Six countries joined the EEC at this point: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany. This would later become the European Union. Britain declined an invitation to join the EEC in 1957.
The first enlargement occurred in 1973, when the United Kingdom, Denmark and Ireland joined the EEC. The UK had attempted to join in 1961, but French President Charles de Gaulle blocked Britain’s application twice. A referendum on British membership was held in 1975. Just over two-thirds voted in favour of membership.
Membership continued to grow throughout the 1980s and 90s. Greece joined in 1981, followed by Portugal & Spain in 1986. In 1995, Sweden, Finland and Austria joined, making a community of 15 countries.
Ten countries joined in 2004, the largest expansion in the EU’s history, both in terms of people and countries. Eight of these were former members of the Soviet Union: Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. They were joined by Malta and Cyprus. Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007, followed by Croatia in 2013, creating a union of 28 countries.
A number of countries want to join the EU. There are five countries that are formally acknowledged to be candidates for EU membership: Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania. Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, while not formally acknowledged as applicants, are widely recognized as potential candidates.