EU expansion: which countries could join the European Union?

countries could join the European Union

There are several reasons why a country may wish to be part of the European Union. One of the main benefits of being part of the European Union is the single market: EU citizens can live or work in any EU country and sell goods without restrictions.

In addition, as a union of 27 nations, the EU has greater global power than if each individual country acted separately. Other advantages include the upholding of high environmental standards and the safeguarding of human rights.

With attractions such as these, several European nations have applied to join the EU over the last decade. Some countries have already begun formal negotiations whilst others do not yet meet the EU’s strict membership criteria.

This article looks at the stages that each candidate country has reached in the process as an indication of how the size and shape of the EU will continue to evolve over the coming years.

The growth of the European Union

The European Union has increased in size significantly since its foundation. Countries first started to cooperate in the early 1950s, the European Economic Community (EEC), which would later become the European Union, was formalised by 1958.

1958: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands
1973: Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom (left in 2020)
1981: Greece
1986: Portugal, Spain
1995: Austria, Finland, Sweden
2004: Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia
2007: Bulgaria, Romania
2013: Croatia

The last major period of growth was in 2004 when 10 countries joined the union. The United Kingdom is the only nation to have ever joined the EU and later left, Brexit saw the UK separate from the EU on January 1st 2020.

How does a country join the EU?

Any country that meets the conditions for EU membership may apply to join the European Union. These requirements are known as the Copenhagen criteria and state that a country must have, among other things, a stable democracy and rule of law, and accept all EU legislation.

Once a country is named a candidate it must adopt EU rules and regulations as national law. This is a complex process and negotiations can take several years to complete.

European Union negotiating chapters

The EU negotiating chapters, or chapters of the acquis, cover each of the different areas that must be discussed during the accession negotiations.

Candidate nations are expected to bring their national laws in line with EU legislation as laid out in the 35 chapters covering areas such as:

  • Free movement of goods
  • Free movement for workers
  • Intellectual property law
  • Financial services
  • Customs unions
  • Justice, freedom, ad security

European Union candidate countries

There are currently 5 countries that are in the process of joining the EU:

  • Albania
  • Montenegro
  • North Macedonia
  • Serbia
  • Turkey

These nations are now integrating EU legislation into national law, a crucial step in gaining membership.

Albania EU membership timeline

2003: Albania named as a potential candidate for joining the EU
2009: formal application submitted to the European Union
2012: the Commission recommends Albania be granted EU candidate status
2014: Albania given EU candidate status
2020: accession negotiations opened by the European Council and draft negotiating framework presented

No chapters have yet been opened, negotiations are in the early stages.

Montenegro EU membership timeline

2006: Montenegro declares independence from the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro
2008: Montenegro applies for EU membership
2012: accession negotiations begin

Negotiations are ongoing, all chapters have now been opened in the negotiation process.

North Macedonia EU membership timeline

2003: North Macedonia identified as a potential EU membership candidate
2004: North Macedonia applied for EU membership
2005: the Council grants North Macedonia candidate status
2009: the Commission first recommends the opening of accession negotiations
2020: accession negotiations opened and draft negotiating framework presented

Negotiations will now take place between North Macedonia and the European Union, no chapters have yet been opened.

Serbia EU membership timeline

2003: Serbia identified as potential EU candidate
2009: Serbia formally applied for EU membership
2012: Serbia granted EU candidate status
2013: accession negotiations opened by the European Council
2014: first conference held between Serbia and the EU

To date, 18 chapters have been opened.

Turkey EU membership timeline

1997: Turkey declared eligible to become an EU member
1999: Turkey becomes EU candidate country
2005: negotiating framework determines and formal negotiations begin
2015: first EU-Turkey summit and activation of an action plan

Negotiations have remained frozen since 2018 due to issues concerning rule of law and fundamental rights.

Potential EU candidates

Potential EU candidates do not yet meet the requirements for EU membership. There are currently 2 countries that fall into this category:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Kosovo

Until all the criteria are met, the countries cannot be granted EU candidate status. Negotiations can only begin once a nation is an official candidate.

European countries that remain outside the EU

The European countries that remain outside the European Union and are not either candidates or potential EU candidates are:

  • Andorra
  • Armenia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Belarus
  • Georgia
  • Iceland
  • Liechtenstein
  • Moldova
  • Monaco
  • Norway
  • Russia
  • San Marino
  • Switzerland
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • Vatican City

EU member states in the Schengen Area

The Schengen Area is one of the EU’s greatest achievements. The borderless zone makes travelling within the region hassle-free. Of the 27 EU countries, 22 are part of the Schengen Area including the European countries most visited by Canadians.

The 5 EU countries that are yet to join the Schengen zone are:

  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Cyprus
  • Ireland
  • Romania

Each of these countries, with the exception of Ireland, is legally obliged to join in the future.

As part of the Schengen zone, EU countries will benefit from ETIAS, the new visa waiver programme for Europe. ETIAS aims to strengthen external EU borders by pre-screening visitors from outside the EU.

From 2022, Canadian’s will require an ETIAS travel authorisation to enter the Schengen Area, they can then travel around the borderless region without facing further border checkpoints.