Accession negotiations must be concluded before a new Member State can join the European Union.
Negotiations take place between ministers and ambassadors of the EU governments and the candidate country in what is called an intergovernmental conference.
The first phase entails rigorous screening of the candidate country's legislation; negotiations then proceed methodically through the range of EU legislation, which the candidate country must adopt, implement and enforce. Negotiations also extend to other rights and obligations that all Member States must accept - these are known as the Community acquis.
The political and economic reforms carried out by the candidate country are monitored and assessed regularly, and the pace of negotiations is determined by the results. Only when all parties are satisfied does the process conclude with the signing and ratification of an Accession Treaty.
During the process of accession negotiations, candidates and potential candidate countries can receive support through the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). This includes a number of cross-border programmes with EU Member States, which closely mirror the functioning of the structural funds.
Accession negotiations are currently ongoing with Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Negotiations have also been opened with Iceland, but are currently on hold.