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An expanding bloc

Enlargement is the process whereby countries join the EU. Since it was founded in 1957, the EU has grown from 6 member countries to 28.

Spreading prosperity and democracy

Welcoming new members was part of the plan from the beginning. The founding fathers were confident enough of their idea to leave the door open for other European countries to join. 

Helping countries that have the potential to become members has been the EU’s response to changes in the European political landscape over the past 50 years, promoting economic growth and strengthening democratic forces in countries emerging from dictatorship.

Uniting East and West

The 6 founding members of the EU in 1957 were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

From 1973 on, most of the other Western European countries joined.
Then, following the collapse of their regimes in 1989, many former communist countries from central and eastern Europe became EU members in 2 waves, between 2004 and 2007.

Who can join?

The Treaty on European Union states that any European country may apply for membership if it respects the EU's democratic values and is committed to promoting them. 

But specifically, a country can only join if it meets all the membership criteria:

  • political – it must have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law and human rights
  • economic – it must have a functioning market economy and be able to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU
  • legal – it must accept established EU law and practice – especially the major goals of political, economic and monetary union.

How does it work?

The process has 3 stages (all subject to approval by all existing EU countries):

  1. a country is offered the prospect of membership. This means it should be granted official candidate status when it is ready.
  2. the country becomes an official candidate for membership – but this still does not mean that formal negotiations have been opened.
  3. the candidate moves on to formal membership negotiations, a process that usually involves reforms to adopt established EU law.

When the negotiations and accompanying reforms have been completed to the satisfaction of both sides, the country can join the EU – again, if all existing EU countries agree.

Who might join next?

Currently the EU has offered the prospect of membership to 9 countries: Albania, Turkey, Iceland and all the countries of the former Yugoslavia (except Slovenia, already an EU member). 

5 of these have been granted official candidate status:

  • Turkey 
  • Serbia 
  • former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia 
  • Iceland 
  • Montenegro

Find out more 


*This text originates from the EU's official website:

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