According to Article 49 of the EU Treaty “any European State which respects the principles set out in Article 6, paragraph 1 may apply to become a member of the Union”. The interested State addresses its application to the Council, which acts unanimously after consulting the Commission and receiving the assent of the European Parliament.
The conditions of admission and the consequent necessary adjustments to the Treaties on which the Union is founded are the subject of an agreement between the Member States and the applicant State. This agreement is submitted for ratification by all the contracting States in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements (ratification by the national parliament or referendum).
The 1993 Copenhagen European Council for the first time laid down a number of specific criteria that the candidate countries would have to fulfil in order to be granted membership:
- Political criteria: Stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.
- Economic criteria: Existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.
- Institutional criteria: Ability to take on the obligations of membership by transposing into national legislation and effectively implementing the Community acquis.
Fulfilment of the political criteria is a prerequisite for the initiation of accession negotiations between a candidate country and the European Union.
Twelve countries have initiated accession negotiations: Bulgaria, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. Although Turkey is also a candidate country, it doesn’t meet the political criteria and consequently hasn’t yet entered into negotiations for accession.
The Treaty of Nice, which was signed in December 2000, contained a number of provisions concerning the functional integration of the new countries in the Union’s institutional structure.
In October 2002, the European Commission concluded in its annual progress report on the accession process that ten countries met the political and economic criteria and had made excellent progress in adopting the Community acquis, thus paving the way for their EU accession in 2004. The ten countries are Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic. In view of this, the Copenhagen European Council took the decision for the accession of these countries to the EU on 1 May 2004.