Membership negotiations cannot start until all EU governments agree, in the form of a unanimous decision by the EU Council, on a framework or mandate for negotiations with the candidate country.
Negotiations take place between ministers and ambassadors of the EU governments and the candidate country in what is known as an intergovernmental conference.
Negotiations under each chapter are based on the following elements:
1. Screening – the Commission carries out a detailed examination, together with the candidate country, of each policy field (chapter), to determine how well the country is prepared. The findings by chapter are presented by the Commission to the Member States in the form of a screening report. The conclusion of this report is in the form of a Commission recommendation to either open negotiations directly or to require that certain conditions – opening benchmarks - should be met first.
2. Negotiating positions – before negotiations can start, the candidate country must submit its position and the EU must adopt a common position. For most chapters, the EU will set closing benchmarks in this position which need to be met by the Candidate Country before negotiations in the policy field concerned can be closed. For chapters 23 and 24, the Commission is proposing that in future these chapters be opened on the basis of action plans, with interim benchmarks to be met based on their implementation before closing benchmarks are set.
The pace of the negotiations then depends on the speed of reform and alignment with EU laws in each country. The duration of negotiations can vary – starting at the same time as another country is no guarantee of finishing at the same time.
Concluding the negotiations
No negotiations on any individual chapter are closed until every EU government is satisfied with the candidate's progress in that policy field, as analysed by the Commission. Furthermore, the entire negotiation process is only concluded definitively once every chapter has been closed.
1. Accession treaty
This is the document that cements the country's membership of the EU. It contains the detailed terms and conditions of membership, all transitional arrangements and deadlines, as well as details of financial arrangements and any safeguard clauses.
It is not final and binding until it:
- wins the support of the EU Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament
- is signed by the candidate country and representatives of all existing EU countries
- is ratified by the candidate country and every individual EU country, according to their constitutional rules (parliamentary vote, referendum, etc.)
2. Acceding country
Once the treaty is signed, however, the candidate becomes an acceding country. This means it is expected to become a full EU member on the date laid down in the treaty, providing the treaty has been ratified.
In the interim, it benefits from special arrangements, such as to comment on draft EU proposals, communications, recommendations or initiatives, and "active observer status" in EU bodies and agencies (it is entitled to speak, but not vote).