How does the EU accession process work?

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Ukraine has filled out 5,000-page questionnaires for EU accession and presented them to the President of the Commission. But President Emmanuel Macron warned that accession could take decades. How does it really work?

27 flags are currently flying in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Will there be more in the future?

When the French President warned in Strasbourg on Monday that the accession process for Ukraine or other countries could take decades, he must have been thinking of Turkey. It has been a candidate country since 1999, and the then Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl made the decision for political reasons. Since then, several chapters of the accession negotiations have been opened over the years – but then the relationship with the increasingly autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cooled. When human rights violations in Ankara became more and more blatant and political developments more and more anti-democratic, the EU finally put the negotiations on hold. Emmanuel Macron may have had this story in the back of his mind as a cautionary tale.

Not just for EU accession far apart: EU Commission President von der Leyen, Council President Michel, Turkish President Erdogan and his Foreign Minister Cavusoglu (from left)

The Copenhagen criteria

The first step in the accession process is the status as a candidate country. For this, the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which were decided at the 1993 summit in the Danish capital, must be met. According to this, a country must have stable democratic government and recognize the rule of law and its freedoms and institutions. Ultimately, however, it is also a political decision as to whether the other EU member states believe that a new country fits into the European family and could be useful for geo-strategic or economic reasons.

It is clear that the Turkey in its present political state could not become a candidate country. But it is also clear that democratic steps backwards on the way to EU membership can never be ruled out. They even become more likely the longer it takes to get there. On the other hand, membership does not protect against anti-democratic developments, as the example of Hungary shows.

The opening of accession negotiations

Formal negotiations can begin as soon as a country is ready and able to recognise, apply and put into practice EU law. On the way there, it has to carry out reforms in the judiciary, administration, economy and other political structures with the aim of ultimately meeting the so-called accession criteria, i.e. EU standards. The start of these negotiations must be decided unanimously in the Council of European Governments.

In a first step, the EU Commission examines the current situation in the institutions of the candidate country and proposes a negotiation framework that is divided into individual chapters. If the EU member states accept this part of the process, negotiations on the individual sections can begin.

Requires an accelerated EU admission procedure for his country: the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj

Since the procedure was last revised last year, the negotiation areas have been split into six thematic groups: fundamentals, internal market, competition and fair growth, environmental issues, resources, agriculture and cohesion, and finally external relations. These groups are then divided into 35 further sub-areas . In this way, all areas of a state are screened to determine the extent to which they meet European requirements.

Where the review finds shortcomings, the EU negotiators propose reforms that are provided with “benchmarks” for step-by-step implementation. If, for example, not all children have access to education, the candidate country must reform the school system. When politics gets too involved in the appointment of judges, reforms in the judicial system are enacted to guarantee their independence. The candidate country, in turn, is obliged to implement the recommendations from Brussels, which can take a few years.

If the candidate believes that it has reformed enough, the relevant area will be reviewed by the EU again. However, if a candidate country refuses to implement the prescribed reforms, the accession process will stall. If there are clear democratic steps backwards, such as in Turkey, it can be frozen and brought to a complete standstill.

Accession is the crowning glory

All completed accession chapters must be accepted as such by the European governments in the Council. Only then will an accession treaty be drawn up, which must be decided by the Commission, the European Parliament and finally unanimously by the European Council. Admission will be completed once all ratification hurdles have been cleared in the candidate country itself.

With fireworks Slovakia celebrated its accession to the EU on May 1, 2004 in Bratislava

Between 2004 and 2007, twelve countries simultaneously became EU members as part of the mass accession of Eastern European countries from Estonia to Bulgaria. Among them were Malta and Cyprus. It was clearly a political decision that had generously overlooked many of the shortcomings of the new members. It turned out that the change from communist structures in the economy and public administration is taking much longer than hoped. Bulgaria, for example, is still deeply affected by corruption and Romania is grappling with dysfunctional institutions. The Baltic states are model children among the new members. Croatia was the last country to join the EU in 2013. After that, the train came to a standstill.

Entry fatigue

Since then, many old EU members, such as France, the Netherlands and some Scandinavians, have been clearly tired of joining. The accession costs a lot of money – 9 billion euros have been set aside for pre-accession aid in the EU budget – and create endless political problems.

Several Western Balkan countries are currently sitting on the waiting bench, which are repeatedly promised progress because their inclusion seems strategically important, but where in fact nothing is moving. Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, are not yet ready for candidate status because their governments threaten their neighbors or grossly violate EU norms.

Unsuccessful accession negotiations have been going on for a number of years with Serbia and Montenegro, where the EU Commission has concerns about the rule of law, the most important criterion. Negotiations were recently opened with North Macedonia and Albania, with the Netherlands having doubts about the Albanian government's will to fight cross-border gang crime and therefore blocking progress.

And finally, the region's old disputes and rivalries continue to be fought. While Greece blocked its accession process for years because of the name dispute with North Macedonia, Bulgaria is now causing problems because of a quarrel over the language.

In view of the tricky situation in the existing small candidate countries, it is no wonder that many EU -Members look on with horror at the great Ukraine and their desire to join. Before the war, the government in Kyiv had not even been able to meet the reform requirements arising from the partnership relationship. Major shortcomings remained in the areas of corruption and the rule of law. The Russian attack may have changed the political situation, but not the internal state of the country, which will initially need a huge reconstruction program. And when it comes to the admission of countries that are not politically ready for this, the EU has had to be seen as a burnt child since the last major enlargement in the mid-2000s.