On this day in 2004, Malta and nine other countries signed the EU accession treaty

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On this day, in 2004 the leaders of ten new countries with a combined population of almost 75 million signed the accession treaty, through which they joined the EU. Up to that accession, the 25 countries formed a political and economic area with 450 million citizens and includes three former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), four former satellites of the USSR (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia), a former Yugoslav republic (Slovenia) and two Mediterranean islands (Cyprus and Malta).

This historic enlargement of the EU from 15 to 25 members was the culmination of a long accession process leading to the reunification of a Europe that had been divided for half a century by the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. It is therefore worth briefly reviewing the preparations for this fifth enlargement of the EU, and the challenges and prospects it brings with it.

The journey

The fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989 marked the disintegration of the entire Communist bloc in the East. This event was the starting point for the process of European reunification. From then on the EU and the candidate countries worked tirelessly together to prepare the enlargement within the framework of bilateral accession partnerships between the EU and each candidate country. The partnerships set the priorities and precise timetables for the ground which needed to be covered to enable each country to take on the obligations involved in accession.

From 1987 to 1996 thirteen countries submitted applications to join the EU: Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. The Luxembourg European Council of 12 and 13 December 1997 launched the EU enlargement process, in which “each of the applicant States would proceed at its own rate, depending on its degree of preparedness”.

To prepare for EU membership, the candidate countries first signed Europe Agreements (in the case of Central and Eastern European countries) or Association Agreements (Turkey, Cyprus and Malta). The EU supported their work to adopt the Community’s rules through its pre-accession strategy. It gave them financial assistance for developing their institutions, infrastructure and economies.

Accession negotiations began on 31 March 1998 with the six best-prepared countries (Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia), and on 15 February 2000 with all the other candidate countries (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Romania and Slovakia) except Turkey. They were based on the principle of “differentiation”, i.e. each country’s progresses at its own pace according to its level of preparation for accession. The length of the negotiations therefore varied according to each country’s progress.

From 1998 the Commission published regular reports every year on the progress of each candidate country. The priorities for each candidate country and the specific support this required were defined in the accession partnerships adopted in 1998 and revised in 1999 and 2002. These documents were the basis for “screenings” (sector-by-sector evaluation) to establish a “roadmap” for each candidate specifying the legislation that needed to be adopted or amended to comply with the Community acquis.

The Copenhagen European Council of December 2002 found that 10 of the 13 candidate countries (Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Slovakia) fulfilled the conditions necessary for joining the EU. They therefore signed their Accession Treaty on 16 April 2003 in Athens and officially joined the EU on 1 May 2004 after the ratification procedures were completed.

There were three more countries which joined the EU in two separate enlargements. On 1st January 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined the bloc, while in 2013 Croatia joined.

In 2020, the UK left the EU.

The EU was created in the aftermath of the Second World War. The first steps were to foster economic cooperation: the idea being that countries who trade with one another become economically interdependent and so more likely to avoid conflict.

In 1951, six countries founded the European Coal and Steel Community, and later, in 1957, the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community:

  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • France
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • the Netherlands

In 1973, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom join the European Union, raising the number of member states to nine.

In 1981 membership of the EU reaches double figures when Greece joins. It has been eligible to join since its military regime was overthrown and democracy restored in 1974.

In 1986 Spain and Portugal joined the EU. In 1995, Austria, Finland and Sweden join the EU.

The largest enlargement took place in 2004, where as stated above, Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. This was the largest single enlargement in terms of people, and number of countries.

On 1st January 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined the bloc, while in 2013 Croatia joined.

There are five recognised candidates for membership of the European Union: Turkey (applied in 1987), North Macedonia(applied in 2004), Montenegro (applied in 2008), Albania (applied in 2009) and Serbia (applied in 2009). All have started accession negotiations. Kosovo (whose independence is not recognised by five EU member states) and Bosnia and Herzegovina are recognised as potential candidates for membership by the EU. Bosnia and Herzegovina has formally submitted an application for membership, while Kosovo has a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, which generally precedes the lodging of a membership application. Montenegro and Serbia, the most advanced candidates, are both expected to join no earlier than 2022, with 2025 being more likely. While the others are progressing, Turkish talks are at an effective standstill.

Eur-Lex / EU / Wikipedia