How does a country join the EU?

Before I get into the substance of this post, I want to deal with something I saw on the’s twitter feed this week. I refuse to post a link to it because I do not want it shared any more than it already is. It is a photo with the caption “Islamist extremism is a real threat to our way of life…. Act now before we see an Orlando-Style atrocity here before too long.” It is followed by links etc to the’s website.

It is not an exaggeration to say that seeing this made me feel sick. The events in Orlando are truly, truly horrible and it is devastating to see these things happen. My heart goes out to everyone affected by such a heinous act.

To make the link between something like this and the EU referendum is the lowest form of political propaganda. To leverage events where innocent victims, people’s friends and family, have been killed to further your own political cause is nothing short of hideous. Our country, our political system, is far better than this sort of politics of baseless accusations and completely uniformed attempts to engender fear.

I want to set the record straight (in so far as this needed to be said): there is absolutely no link between terrorism and EU membership. The question of whether our country is likely to be the subject of an attack of any nature does not in any way depend on whether we are an EU Member State. Do not make your decision on this basis. If anything, a number of key figures involved in UK security have explained how we would be safer within the EU because of the intelligence-sharing and common security policies agreed between EU Member States.[i] If you’d like to read about some examples to illustrate this point, I’ve included them in the footnote (just click on the link to the right of this =>).[ii]

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I want to deal with another myth from the Leave campaign. This one runs as follows: if we remain in the EU, loads of other countries will join which will create even more problems in terms of immigration.

This is based on a misunderstanding of how a country joins the EU. In short, no country can join the EU without the UK’s consent. Even if they do join, it does not mean they will immediately access rights of free movement of people. In this post, I will explain these points in more detail.

 Who can join the EU?

 To join the EU – a country must comply with the following criteria: [iii]

  1. Be within geographical Europe;
  2. Respect, promote and commit to the values which are set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union – they are as follows: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities… a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”;[iv]
  3. The country must also comply with something called the Copenhagen Criteria – these criteria require the country to have:
    1. Stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and the protection of minorities;
    2. A functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU; and
    3. The ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of EU membership;
  4. The country must be able to implement and apply EU law.

These are not the only conditions; the EU Member States can specify others in the case of individual countries.[v] Also, the EU itself must be in a position to accept and integrate new members, it is not required to accept new members just because the criteria are satisfied.

How does a country join the EU?

The process of joining the EU follows a series of steps:[vi]

  1. The country wishing to join the EU applies for something called “candidate country status”. If they are granted this status, it means that the country (now called a “candidate country”) will begin the process of negotiating to join the EU. It does not mean that the candidate country is guaranteed to join the EU as I will explain below. Candidate country status is granted by a unanimous vote of the European Council (made up of the Heads of State/Government of the EU Member States), following a favourable opinion by the European Commission and consent from the European Parliament. This means that the UK has a say (in fact, it has a veto) over whether a country is given candidate country status.
  2. Once a country has candidate status, it begins negotiations to join the EU. These negotiations take place between the governments of the Member States of the EU and the candidate country. At the same time, the EU institutions will verify whether the candidate country has implemented EU law in accordance with the agreement that is being negotiated. Each year that negotiations are ongoing, the EU Commission will compile a progress report on the extent to which the candidate country has complied with the criteria listed above and implemented EU law, and send this to the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament.
  3. Once the negotiation process is complete, the EU Member States and the candidate country will have negotiated an agreement for the candidate country to join the EU. This agreement must be approved by a unanimous vote of the Council of the European Union (which is made up of ministerial representatives of each Member State), and must receive the consent of the European Parliament. If this happens, the agreement must be signed and approved by each individual EU Member State and the candidate country. So, again, the UK has a veto on whether a candidate country joins the EU at this stage.

So, it does not follow, as the Leave campaign suggest, that various countries are going to join the EU if we remain part of the EU. The UK has a veto over whether a country becomes a candidate country, the candidate country must then satisfy a whole series of conditions before it can join the EU, and even once that process is complete, the UK has another veto over whether the country joins the EU following negotiations. None of this can happen without the UK’s consent.

If we were to leave the EU and re-join in another form, we would lose control over which countries were permitted to join the EU. This would become a particular problem if, as part of renegotiating our relationship with the EU, we accept (or are required to accept) the free movement of workers or (more generally) people. If this happened, the UK would be in a situation where it would have no say over who joins the EU, but it would be forced to accept the free movement of workers/people from those countries that joined.

The argument in response to this is to say that we won’t accept the free movement of workers/people as part of renegotiating our relationship with the EU. As it stands, we cannot be sure of this. As I’ve argued here, joining the European Free Trade Association involves accepting the free movement of workers/people and the Swiss agreement with the EU involves the same. There is simply no precedent for the sort of agreement that we would need, which would cover the free movement of goods and services, that doesn’t involve the free movement of people. If the Leave campaign think this is possible, then they need to explain (among many other things) how this would happen, when it would happen, and how much it will cost to negotiate.

Does a candidate country get full access to the EU when it joins?

As I mentioned above, each candidate country must individually negotiate their entry into the EU, and as a result specific conditions can be imposed on this. One set of conditions, known as transitional arrangements, govern the extent to which a given candidate country will benefit from, or is required to implement, EU law when it joins the EU.

As a result, Member States of the EU can, for example, agree limitations on the free movement of workers as part of the agreement for candidate countries to join the EU. In fact, in all agreements concluded after 2004, the EU Member States have agreed something called a 2+3+2 arrangement to limit the free movement of workers for those candidate countries joining the EU. Broadly this works as follows:[vii]

  1. For the first two years after the candidate country joins the EU, each existing Member State can decide whether it allows nationals of the candidate country access to its labour market, and for example whether those nationals require a work permit.
  2. If the existing EU Member States want to restrict access to their labour market for a further three years they must notify the EU Commission before the end of the two year period in point 1.
  3. After the expiry of the three year period in point 2 above, any existing Member State can impose restrictions for a further two years if they inform the EU Commission of serious disturbances in their labour market.

Therefore, under these agreements, it would be possible for an existing EU Member State to restrict the free movement of workers from a candidate country that joins the EU for up to seven years. It is entirely possible that these requirements could be applied if any other candidate country were to join the EU. Remember that any agreement for a candidate country to join the EU has to be approved by every Member State, and therefore it would be open to the UK to insist that a 2+3+2 arrangement be put in place. As I’ve mentioned above, one of the (many) things I find concerning about the prospect of leaving the EU is that we would have no control over who became members of the EU, and we would not be able to insist on restrictions on free movement of workers.

What about Turkey’s visa-free travel?

Within the last week, the newspapers picked up that the EU had been considering granting visa-free travel to Turkey, which resulted in a lot of news coverage. There are three points to clarify here:[viii]

  1. First, visa-free travel does not mean free movement of people. It applies to short-term travel only. It essentially means that those benefitting from visa-free travel don’t have to complete a visa when they go on holiday.
  2. Second, the proposal is to grant visa-free travel for Turkish nationals to the EU Member States that are party to the Schengen agreement (the borderless travel zone of the EU). The UK is not a member of Schengen, and is not obliged to join it, so any visa-free travel arrangements made at this stage do not apply to us. It is true that the UK government has considered whether to extend this to the UK, but has stated that it does not intend to do so.
  3. Third, it wasn’t a secret as has been suggested in some circles. The EU has been discussing visa-free travel for Turkey for a while.

Final points

So – the Leave campaign’s claims that all of these various countries are going to join the EU if we remain are misguided. The key points are:

  1. As a member of the EU, we have a veto on which countries become candidate countries.
  2. Those candidate countries must satisfy a number of conditions before they can join the EU.
  3. The UK is directly involved in the negotiations for that country to join the EU, and it could insist on certain restrictions such as on the free movement of workers for a specified period after a candidate country joins the EU. As I’ve mentioned above, the EU Member States seem to have developed a policy of imposing these conditions in the form of the 2+3+2 arrangement since 2004.
  4. The UK has a veto on whether, after those negotiations are concluded, that country can join the EU.

If we vote to Leave the EU, we lose all of this.

On lighter note…

For a bit of light relief – whilst there has been a lot of media commentary about Turkey joining the EU, this cat is clearly in favour… (thanks again to @mEUwcats)



Footnotes (AKA things for the super keen)

[i] See, for example,

[ii] To give you a few brief examples: the UK, as part of its membership of the EU, is party to a number of mechanisms to share intelligence with EU countries, such as the European Criminal Records Information System (which allows countries to exchange information – including finger prints – contained in national criminal records databases) – see Also, as a result of the European Arrest Warrant, which provides for individuals suspected of criminal offences to be arrested and extradited swiftly back to the country issuing the warrant, we have managed to remove individuals from the UK who have been suspected of criminal offences, and similarly individuals have been returned to the UK to stand trial. A high profile example of this was the arrest of Hussein Osman, who was involved in an attempted bomb attack on London on 21 July 2005. He was arrested in Italy and brought back to the UK pursuant to a European Arrest Warrant (see: He was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment



[v] – For example, additional conditions were imposed on the Western Balkans countries which are explained in this link.





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