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Background Report: The EU Membership Process

BY Admin  January 1, 2009 at 1:15 PM EDT

European Union flag; Photo Credit: S. Solberg J.

Almost a year later, the six original member countries — Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy — signed the Treaty of Paris to establish the European entity.

That initial effort at European unity has undergone several enlargements in the decades that followed, along with a change of name. By the close of 2008, the European Union consisted of 27 nations and 495 million citizens, and continues to evolve to keep pace with its growing membership and expanding mission.

The modern European Union, which was formally established by the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993, has legislative, executive and judicial bodies. The Council of the European Union is the main decision-making body. Comprised of the member nations, the Council shares legislative duties with the Parliament. The Parliament is the elected body that represents the population of the European Union. The executive arm of the Union is the European Commission. The Commission represents the collective goals of the European community; it is not permitted to answer to the interests of any one member nation. Other institutions, such as the Court of Auditors, and the Court of Justice, help oversee judicial and budgetary matters.

Leadership of the Council of the European Union rotates through the member nations every six months.

Executive

The European Commission is the executive branch of the European Union. Independent of national governments, the Commission represents the interests of the greater European continent. The Commission has four primary roles: to propose laws to the Parliament and the Council; to implement policies and manage the budget; to enforce European law; to represent Europe on the world stage and negotiate agreements with other countries.

The staff of the European Commission includes 27 commissioners, one from each member state. Every five years, a new Commission is appointed. Nations designate the new president, whose appointment is approved by Parliament. The president-designate chooses the commissioners, who are approved by a majority of both the Council and the Parliament. The Commission is accountable to Parliament, which can remove by the entire Commission through a motion of censure. The president may ask an individual commissioner to resign. The current Commission, headed by Jose Manuel Barroso of Portugal, will expire in October 2009.

The Commission is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, with representation all over Europe. An administrative staff of about 23,000 people runs the Commission from day to day.

Legislative

The European Parliament is comprised of 785 members from all of the 27 countries who are directly elected by European citizens every five years. The last election took place in June 2004. It has three main offices in Brussels, Belgium, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, France. The Parliament has three main functions: to pass European laws; to supervise the democratic operation of the Union’s institutions; and to influence the budget.

The Parliament passes laws in conjunction with the Council. On some matters, such as visas and immigration, the Council legislates alone, though the Parliament is consulted. The Parliament can also introduce new laws by asking the Commission to formally propose an idea. The Commission is accountable to Parliament, which can call for the resignation of the entire body if it deems necessary. It also supervises the Council and is able to establish councils of inquiry. The Council and the Parliament establish the annual budget as well, which this year totaled approximately $161 billion or about $330 per resident of the EU.

The Council of the European Union is the main decision-making body. Meetings are attended by ministers representing each member country, and which ministers attend depends on the subject of interest. For matters of general interest, the government chooses which minister to send. Up to four times a year, the heads of state from each country meet to discuss particularly important matters, or ones that could not be settled by the lower officials.

The Council has legislative power in conjunction with the Parliament. Together, the bodies also set the annual budget. The Council also has the power to coordinate the economic policy, manage international agreements with non member states, develop a security policy and coordinate matters of justice among the member nations.

The Council is headed by a president, which is rotated through the member states every six months. The nation in charge chairs the Council meetings and takes the lead in negotiating compromises. On most issues, the Council approves action based on a qualified majority. On some sensitive issues, such as immigration, the decision must be unanimous.

Membership

Fifty years ago, the original European Economic Community comprised of six member countries and a population of roughly 200 million. As of the end of 2008, there were 27 countries and 500 million people in the European Union. Membership is open to any country with a solid commitment to democracy and human rights, but the process is long and involves many steps. There are currently three countries under consideration for membership: Croatia, Turkey, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Western Balkan states also have been identified as potential candidates.

After establishing a relationship with the European Union, a country may submit an application for membership to the European Council, which evaluates it in conjunction with the Commission. With unanimous approval of the Council, negotiations may begin. The 1993 Copenhagen agreement set out the conditions for negotiation to begin: stable institutions that guarantee democracy and human rights, a healthy market economy, and ability to adhere to the policies of the European Union.

The Commission screens the countries based on 35 “chapters,” such as agriculture, foreign and security policy, food safety, energy and transport policies, and various other subjects. The country may be asked to meet certain benchmarks before formal negotiations even begin, thereby making the length of the application process vary from country to country. The country must also determine a timeline for implementing EU policies and processes.

When all negotiations are complete to the unanimous satisfaction of the member countries, a Draft Accession Treaty is compiled and submitted to the Council, Commission, Parliament and member countries for approval. The treaty goes into effect upon the ratification of the candidate country.