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The 2004 enlargement: the challenge of a 25-member EU

On 1 May 2004 ten new countries with a combined population of almost 75 million joined the EU. The 25-member EU now forms 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 is 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.

Preparations for the fifth EU enlargement

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.


Signing of Europe Agreement or Association Agreement

Date of application for accession

Association Agreement OJ Reference




OJ L 358 of 31.12.94




OJ L 133 of 21.5.77




OJ L 68 of 9.3.98




OJ L 347 of 31.12.93




OJ L 26 of 2.2.98




OJ L 51 of 20.2.98




OJ L 61 of 14.3.71




OJ L 348 of 31.12.93

Czech Republic



OJ L 360 of 31.12.94




OJ L 357 of 31.12.94




OJ L 359 of 31.12.94




OJ L 51 of 26.2.99




OJ 217 of 29.12.64

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.

To become part of the EU, the ten candidate countries had first and foremost to be recognised as European States (Article 49 of the EU Treaty) and secondly to comply with the principles of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law (Article 6 of the EU Treaty). They also had to fulfil the economic and political conditions known as the Copenhagen criteria, according to which a candidate country should:

  • be a stable democracy, respect human rights and the rule of law and protect minorities;
  • have a working market economy;
  • adopt the common rules, standards and policies which make up the body of EU law.

The challenges of the fifth EU enlargement

The driving force behind the fifth EU enlargement has been the desire to ensure peace, stability and economic prosperity in a re-unified Europe. Nevertheless, this entails both costs and benefits that it is important to quantify.

Peace, stability and economic prosperity in Europe

The objectives of European unification include:

  • ensuring peace and political stability throughout the continent;
  • securing greater prosperity for Europe's citizens by extending the European socio-economic model and the euro-zone, while at the same time protecting the environment;
  • furthering democracy through compliance with the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is based on the principles of dignity, equality, solidarity and justice;
  • reinforcing Europe's role internationally, particularly in trade matters;
  • cultural enrichment.

To guarantee that enlargement does not undermine the economic and social achievements of the first forty years of the European project, the EU insisted in its negotiations with the candidate countries on the importance of:

  • liberalising economic and agricultural sectors;
  • reforming the judicial system and the police and combating corruption;
  • applying the rules on food safety;
  • combating organised crime, economic and financial crime, drug trafficking and trafficking in women, while upholding children's' rights;
  • upholding minority rights;
  • improving and protecting the environment, particularly in terms of waste management and the safety of nuclear power stations.

The cost and advantages of enlargement

The increase in the number of Member States with differing economic situations, the size of the EU's population and the number of languages spoken calls for some effort to be made by Member States, particularly in financial terms.

As part of its pre-accession strategy, the EU set up a number of financial instruments (Phare, Ispa and Sapard) to help the candidate countries become members.

From 2000 to 2003 the European Commission devoted 13.2 billion euros to pre-accession expenditure. More than 41 billion euros were released for the period 2004-2006 (40.8 billion for the new Member States: agricultural subsidies, regional and infrastructure assistance, nuclear safety, public administration and border protection; 540 million for all Member States: research, culture and education).

When the ten new Member States joined the EU on 1 May 2004 the pre-accession strategy no longer applied to them, but they still benefit from the pre-accession financial instruments for projects presented before 2005 and are now eligible for the Structural Funds and the Cohesion Fund.

However, along with these costs go advantages, since the enlargement from 15 to 25 countries has made it possible to extend the area of stability and peace to the whole European continent, and so avoid the recurrence of conflicts such as that in the former Yugoslavia; to stimulate economic growth and trade by expanding the single market from 378 million to 453 million consumers in 2004, with a prospect of more than 480 million by 2007; and to acquire a greater role for Europe on the international stage, particularly in trade negotiations.

The new Member States have also contributed 15 billion euros to the EU budget. As not all the funds made available have been used, the European Commission has calculated that the net budget cost of the fifth enlargement will not exceed 10 billion euros for the period up to 2006.

The outlook for the fifth enlargement: towards an EU of 30 Member States

Having successfully grown from six members to twenty-five, the EU is now preparing for its next enlargement. Bulgaria and Romania signed their accession treaty on 25 April 2005. They should become members of the EU on 1 January 2007.

Turkey submitted its application for membership on 14 April 1987 and officially obtained the status of accession candidate at the Helsinki European Council of December 1999. In its recommendation of 6 October 2004 the Commission said that it considered that Turkey sufficiently fulfilled the Copenhagen political criteria. It therefore recommended commencing accession negotiations (subject to certain conditions) with Turkey. The European Council of December 2004 therefore programmed the commencement of negotiations for October 2005.

Croatia applied for EU membership on 21 February 2003. The June 2004 European Council officially recognised the country as an accession candidate and in November 2004 the Commission recommending opening negotiations. The December 2004 European Council then concluded that accession negotiations with Croatia should start on 17 March 2005 provided that Croatia fully cooperated with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), particularly regarding the arrest of General Gotovina and his transfer to the Hague. However, finding that Croatia had not fully cooperated, on 16 March 2005 the Council of Ministers decided to postpone the commencement of accession negotiations with Croatia indefinitely. It announced that a bilateral inter-governmental conference would be called by common agreement once it was found that Croatia was fully cooperating with the ICTY.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia submitted its accession application on 22 March 2004 but has not yet obtained the official status of candidate country.

The EU is thus working resolutely for new enlargements in the western Balkan region. It believes that these countries are destined to become members of the EU when they are ready.

Last updated: 23.01.2007