EU Enlargement

What is EU enlargement?

European Union (EU) enlargement describes the process of admitting new member states to join the EU.

Since 'the six' (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951, creating the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the EU has successfully enlarged on six occasions: 1973, when the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined; 1981, when Greece became the tenth member nation; five years later when Spain and Portugal joined in 1986; 1995, when Austria, Sweden and Finland came aboard; and in 2004 when the EU admitted Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic, and Slovenia - the "biggest enlargement ever in terms of scope and diversity". Bulgaria and Romania were admitted in 2007.

These 12 countries brought the total number of EU member states to 27 and the EU population to almost 500 million people.

To qualify for EU membership, a state must meet the 'Copenhagen criteria':

  • To be a stable democracy, respecting human rights, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities
  • To have a functioning market economy
  • To adopt the common rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law - that is, to incorporate the acquis communautaire into domestic law

While the treaties limit the scope for entry to the EU to 'any European state', 'Europe' is nowhere defined in geographical terms.


The EU agreed to begin proceedings to admit new member states from eastern and central Europe at the Luxembourg council of 1997, and the accession process began in 1998.

One applicant, Turkey, did not meet the democratic and economic criteria spelled out in the Copenhagen criteria, which prohibited it from moving forward. But the remaining prospective member states began the process of bringing their domestic laws into line with the body of EU law known as the acquis communautaire.

The Nice Treaty of 2001 built on the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which proposed "to consolidate the union and streamline its decision-making system before enlargement". It also set out the EU's new arrangements, and following ratification by all member states (Ireland rejected Nice in one referendum, but then agreed it in a second one) the accord entered into force.

In addition to incorporating the acquis, prospective member states were required to conclude negotiations with the EU on transitional arrangements. The EU itself was required to modify its institutional and budgetary arrangements to accommodate the new members. For example, financial assistance worth 40 billion euros over three years (2004-2006) was included in the accession arrangements for the ten new member states and agreed to in Copenhagen in December 2002. This, along with the trade barriers that were removed in the 1990s, was designed to help the ten new countries integrate their economies into the EU.

The Council of the European Union represents member states and is the main governing body dealing with EU enlargement. When a new country is being considered to join the union, the council must agree unanimously. Formal negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania opened in February 2000 and both were admitted in 2007. Turkey has had an associate agreement since 1963 and submitted an application for membership in 1987, but failure to meet some of the requirements outlined in the Copenhagen criteria has delayed its accession.

Other countries currently negotiating to join the EU in addition to Turkey are Croatia, Iceland, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. There are also five other potential candidate countries: these are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo (under UN Security Council Resolution 1244), Montenegro, and Serbia.


While the EU has historically evolved successfully to incorporate new members and new ideals, the latest phase of development has been and continues to be particularly challenging.

EU enlargement is frequently presented as part of an historic mission to reunite Europe. An enlarged EU will hope to achieve greater economic and political influence globally, and spread prosperity throughout the EU by expanding the single market.

While there is little opposition to EU enlargement as such, concerns have been voiced about the pressure on EU budgets from the poorer new members. Media reports ahead of the 2004 accessions predicted a wave of immigrants coming from the east in search of work and benefits. Until February 2004, only the UK and Ireland had not taken measures to limit the work rights of immigrants from the new member states - and the UK announced measures that month.

EU enlargement is also controversial at the ideological level: some say the continued expansion of the union dilutes the founding vision and the less explicit principles it rests on.
The latest rounds of enlargement brought a large number of states into the EU that have dramatically different political histories and cultures from the rest of the union. Eight of the accession countries are former members of the communist Soviet bloc which means they have only been democratic states for less than 20 years. During the ten years leading up to accession considerable "twinning" work took place in order to build institutions in the eastern European applicants.

Early on there was a tendency to regard these new members as in some way junior to the existing members. Negotiations almost broke down over the financial terms of accession: the EU, led by France, proposed that incoming member states should not be given access to the same level of subsidies under the common agricultural policy (CAP). Poland, the largest new member state and whose economy is heavily agrarian, objected, threatening to derail the process, until the EU compromised in October 2002.


Formal negotiations on EU membership were opened with Croatia and Turkey in 2005.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was granted candidate status in December 2005.
Formal negotiations on EU membership were opened with Iceland in July 2010.

The EU provides focused pre-accession financial aid to the candidate countries to help them introduce the necessary political, economic and institutional reforms to bring them into line with EU standards.
Since 2007, Croatia has received EU financial aid under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). The allocation for 2011 totals 156.5 million euros.
Since 2007, Turkey has received EU financial aid under the IPA. The allocation for 2011 totals 781.9 million euros.
Since 2007 the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has received EU financial aid under the IPA. The allocation for 2011 totals 98.0 million euros.
11.6 billion euros is available under IPA for 2007-2013.

Source: European Commission - 2011


"We support the further enlargement of the EU."

The Coalition: Our programme for government - May 2010.

"Any European country which respects the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law may apply to become a member of the Union."

European Commission - 2011

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