Serbia has become the latest country to be awarded "candidate status." Is it just an honorary title, or will it really change things for the country? How does the application process to become an EU member state work?
European Union leaders have formally granted Serbia candidate status at Thursday's EU summit, bringing it a step closer to becoming a member of the 27-nation bloc. The Serbian government has recently made moves to normalize relations with its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.
For Serbia, achieving candidate status is an important step on the long road to full membership. In 2009, the country started its official application process. Now, the European Commission is set to name the conditions that must be fulfilled before official negotiations can begin. "We certainly don't want to import new conflicts into the EU," said EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle, with reference to Serbia.
The long haul
Macedonia, meanwhile, has been waiting for the official start to its accession negotiations since it was awarded candidate status in 2005. The former Yugoslav republic has fulfilled almost all the required conditions, but an outstanding dispute with Greece has yet to be resolved. A further candidate, which is also waiting for the opening of formal talks, is Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia in 2006 and was added to the waiting list for candidate status in 2010.
Iceland and Turkey are already negotiating accession with EU leaders. Following its bankruptcy during the first wave of the financial crisis in 2008, Iceland has made rapid progress towards the EU and has been in official talks since July 2010. As a member of the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA), the island nation had already adopted a number of EU laws.
At the moment the negotiations have stalled over the issue of the EU ban on whaling and the payment of compensation to UK investors who lost out when Iceland went bankrupt. The country hopes to wrap up the talks and become an EU member in 2013. However, it remains unclear whether the 300,000 Icelanders would in fact vote to become EU members if they were offered the option in a referendum.
Turkeyhas been sitting at the negotiation table for a very long time. The country handed in its application to Brussels back in 1987, was awarded candidate status in 1999 and has been in informal talks with the EU since 2005. Due to the fact that a number of EU governments, notably France and Germany, are strongly against Turkey joining the bloc, it's unclear what the outcome will be.
In any case, talks have been stalled since 2006, because Turkey does not recognize Cyprus, which is already an EU member state. Turkish troops are occupying the northern part of Cyprus. In Turkey itself, there is less and less support for pursuing the European course. Stefan Füle noted that "both sides are frustrated."
They've made it!
Croatiais home and dry. The western Balkan country with its long Mediterranean coast will become the 28th member of the European Union on July 1, 2013. EU leaders signed the accession treaty in December 2011, and it is currently being ratified by the state parliaments. Croatia applied for membership in 2003, so the whole process will have taken a decade in total.
Sloveniawas the first former Yugoslav republic to join the bloc back in 2004. The EU has promised all the Balkan states that they will be included in the union as soon as they have fulfilled the criteria for negotiations. Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania are currently classified as "potential" candidates.
The waiting game
Bosniahas not yet applied for EU membership. The country is considered too unstable for formal negotiations to take place. In 2008, it signed a stabilization agreement with the EU, with the aim of bringing Bosnia nearer to EU standards and paving the way for potential future membership.
Kosovo is not recognized by all EU member states, which makes formal talks impossible for the time being. But in 2008, the EU did declare that the region had "European prospects" if questions over its status and its relationship with Serbia could be resolved.
Albaniaapplied for membership in 2009, and talks are currently focusing on whether the country has made sufficient reforms of its justice system and its suppression of organized crime to warrant official candidacy.
Other potential candidates are the Eastern European states, which are linked to the EU via the "Eastern Partnership." Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have expressed some interest in EU membership, though they have little chance of joining the union in the foreseeable future. Armenia and Azerbaijan are linked to the EU via economic ties. In Belarus, the presence of dictator Alexander Lukaschenko means that relations between the EU and Minsk are currently strained, and there is no prospect of membership.
Odd one out…
The European Union is familiar with accession, because 21 of the current 27 members only joined the union after its formation in 1957. Finland has the record for the fastest application process: it signaled its desire to join the bloc in 1992 and became a member just three years later.
The former East Germany experienced probably the most unusual entry to the EU - they became members overnight when the German Democratic Republic was unified with West Germany on October 1, 1990. There were no formal talks, but the German government managed to convince skeptical states such as the UK by making financial guarantees.
To date, the European Union has experienced only one exit. In 1985, Greenland left the then European Community, because the Greenlanders themselves voted to leave the bloc in a referendum.
Norway, Switzerland and a number of smaller states in Europe are also not part of the union. The Vatican city would never be allowed to join because it is an absolutist, theocratic state without a parliament or an independent justice system.
Author: Bernd Riegert / ji
Editor: Gabriel Borrud