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On 31 March 1998, accession negotiations were started
with six applicant countries - Hungary, Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic,
Slovenia and Cyprus.
On the Union side, the Member States are the parties to the accession negotiations. The Presidency of the Council of Ministers, which rotates among the member states every six months, presents the negotiating positions agreed by the Council and chairs negotiating sessions at the level of ministers or their deputies.
Each applicant country draws up its position on each of the 31 chapters of the EU acquis, to engage in negotiations. Each applicant has appointed a Chief Negotiator, with a supporting team of experts.
The European Commission proposes the draft negotiating positions. The Commission is in close contact with the applicant countries in order to seek solutions to problems arising during the negotiations. Within the Commission, the work is coordinated by the Directorate General for Enlargement.
The General Secretariat of the Council and the applicant countries provide the secretariat for the negotiations. The European Parliament is kept informed of the progress of the negotiations and gives its assent to the resulting accession treaties. Each Member State will need to ratify the treaties of accession. In most cases this requires an act of Parliament. The debates on ratification will provide an opportunity for representatives of the people in each member state to express their view on enlargement.
In some countries a referendum may also be called on final approval of the accession treaties.
The negotiations determine the conditions under which each applicant country will join the European Union. On joining the Union, applicants are expected to accept the "acquis", i.e. the detailed laws and rules adopted on the basis of the EU's founding treaties, mainly the treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice.
The negotiations focus on the terms under which the applicants will adopt, implement and enforce the acquis, and, notably, the granting of possible transitional arrangements which must be limited in scope and duration. Under similar arrangements in previous accession negotiations, new Member States have been able to phase in their compliance with certain laws and rules by a date agreed during the negotiations.
In 1997 the Council reached agreement on the procedure for the negotiations. Sessions are held at the level of ministers or deputies, i.e. permanent representatives, for the Member States, and Ambassadors or chief negotiators for the applicants.
The negotiations with each applicant proceed on their own merits. The pace of each negotiation will depend on the degree of preparation by each applicant country and the complexity of the issues to be resolved. For this reason, it is not possible to estimate the likely length of each negotiation in advance.
The Commission proposes common negotiating positions for the EU for each chapter relating to matters of Community competence.
Negotiating positions are approved unanimously by the Council. The results of the negotiations are incorporated in an accession treaty. This is submitted to the Council for approval and to the European Parliament for assent. After signature, the accession treaty passes to the member states and to the applicant country(ies) for ratification involving, in some cases, referenda. It takes effect, and the applicant becomes a member state, on the date of accession.
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