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.
It is the Treaty on European Union which sets out the conditions (article 6, article 49) for the enlargement of the EU.
Applying for EU membership
Applying for EU membership is the start of a long and rigorous process.
Submitting an application
The official starting point is when a country submits an application, though this invariably arises out of an already strong bilateral relationship with the EU.
A valid application triggers a sequence of EU evaluation procedures that may - or may not - result in a country eventually being invited to become a member.
The application from a country wishing to join is submitted to the Council.
The Council decision
The Commission provides a formal opinion on the applicant country, and the Council decides whether to accept the application.
Once the Council unanimously agrees a negotiating mandate, negotiations may be formally opened between the candidate and all EU countries.
However, this is not automatic. The applicant country must meet a core set of criteria before negotiations start.
The speed with which each country advances depends solely on its own progress towards our common goals.
The so-called ' Copenhagen criteria ', set out in December 1993 by the European Council in Copenhagen, require a candidate country to have:
- stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
- a functioning market economy, as well as the ability to cope with the pressure of competition and the market forces at work inside the Union;
- the ability to assume the obligations of membership, in particular adherence to the objectives of political, economic and monetary union.