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How does EU accession work?

June 24, 2022

Ukraine and Moldova have both been granted EU candidate status. It's a first step on the complex path to membership. But what happens next? And where do other candidates stand?

EU and Ukrainian flags outside a big circular modern building
Candidate country: Ukrainian and EU flags outside the European Parliament in StrasbourgImage: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

Accession to the European Union is the rule, not the exception. Of today's 27 member states, 21 joined the original, founding members of 1958 — the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, Germany —in several waves and over several decades. The process is actually quite straightforward and is laid down in paragraph 49 of the EU's Treaty of Lisbon.

The three steps to accession

1. Any European state can apply for membership, as long as it respects the EU's values such as democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.

2. The Council of the European Union (the representation of the member states) unanimously approves the application, and opens negotiations. The EU Commission issues a recommendation. The European Parliament must approve. Complex accession criteria must be observed.

3. The applicant and the Council sign an accession treaty, in accordance with international law, which must be ratified by all the member states. As soon as it enters into force: ta-daa! Full membership!

Depending on the size of the applicant, and what shape they are in, the accession negotiations may take a few years or a few decades. Over this time, the candidate country implements reforms, and its public administration, judiciary, and economy are adjusted to conform to EU standards. Negotiations are broken down into 35 chapters, and each step toward accession must be unanimously approved by all the member states.

Map of Europe with the applicant and candidate countries in different colours by status

The EU keeps setting new criteria and reform steps for all applicants. The internal structure of the EU has also been adjusted several times to ensure it remains capable of action despite the increase in its membership.

Who is at what stage?

The current applicants can be divided into four groups:

1. States preparing to apply for membership: Kosovo

2. States that have applied:Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia

3. States that have become official candidates after their application was positively evaluated: Albania, North Macedonia — and now, also, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.

4. States with which accession negotiations are underway: Serbia, Montenegro, Turkey.

Patience needed

It only took three years for Finland to complete the procedure in the mid-1990s. However, Turkey has been negotiating since 2005 with no prospect of progress. The EU always emphasizes that the speed at which applicants proceed is primarily in their hands: It depends how quickly they implement reforms, enabling them to climb another rung up the ladder. On the other hand, EU members can arbitrarily block the process, as Bulgaria is currently doing, using flimsy arguments to deny North Macedonia the start of accession negotiations that are long overdue.

Map of the Balkans with detail of the progress of different countries' applications

A number of cooperation agreements exist to make the wait more bearable, such as the so-called Eastern Partnership. These are designed to encourage reform and provide economic assistance outside the formal accession process. Candidates must also resolve both disputes among themselves and territorial disputes with neighboring states before they can join the EU. This is likely to be extremely difficult for Ukraine. It is also a problem for Serbia and Kosovo.

Fun facts

Incidentally, the fastest accession was that of the former East Germany. It joined the European Union in 1990 without formal negotiations by becoming part of the Federal Republic of Germany, which was already an EU member.

The only country to have withdrawn its application in recent years isIceland, in 2015. So far, the only country to have relinquished its membership and withdrawn from the European Union is the United Kingdom, which left in 2020.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union