Europe in union

With 75 million people preparing to join the European Union, Sarah Biontino and Tim Castorina discuss the criteria that the ten new member states need to meet

Last year has to be considered as one of the most significant in the EU's history. It began with the successful introduction of euro notes and coins, a single currency for 12 nations and 300 million citizens. Then, from February, the 105 members of the Convention on the Future of Europe met to thrash out sweeping changes to the EU's political architecture and draft a constitution that will enshrine the EU's principles and new objectives. Finally, at the Copenhagen summit in December, the assembled EU leaders approved the union's biggest-ever expansion by accepting 10 new members.

If all goes to plan, by 1 May 2004, 75 million people will be welcomed as new citizens of the EU and the union's familiar contours will change forever as it incorporates Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Negotiations to date

Generally, previous enlargements of the EU – most recently to include Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995 – involved small numbers of relatively prosperous nations so the current round of enlargement is of a different magnitude. While close ties had already been forged with some of the applicant states, preparations began on the demise of communist regimes in the East more than a decade ago and major reforms have already been implemented by both the EU and the applicant states.

In 1993 the Copenhagen European Council promised: “The countries in Central and Eastern Europe that so desire shall become members of the union. Accession will take place as soon as a country is able to assume the obligations of membership by satisfying the economic and political conditions.”

Attention then turned to the rules for entry – the 'Copenhagen criteria'. These had political, economic and legal components. Applicant states were required to have: stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities; a functioning market economy capable of withstanding competitive pressures and market forces within the EU; and the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including the goal of political, economic and monetary union. These criteria were supplemented in Madrid in 1995 with a requirement to ensure the effective application of EU law through appropriate administrative and judicial structures.

For the past decade, the European Commission has monitored the applicant states' pro-gress in the economic and legal sphere and their compliance with the acquis communautaire, the large body of EU laws and regulations developed since the Common Market was formed. Indeed, the countries were required to pass the test of implementing each chapter of the Treaty of Amsterdam before being allowed to join. The final chapters were hastily closed before December.

The Nice Treaty

Faced with the prospect of a significant en-largement, it was clear that the EU's institutions would be unable to cope. The Nice Treaty, which came into force on 1 February 2003 following ratification in the recent Irish referendum, delivered substantial institutional reform. From 2005, member states will nominate one commissioner until there are 27 member states, at which point a system of rotation will be introduced. It is thought that the 10 new commissioners will arrive in Brussels as early as spring 2004. This begs the question of what they will do in the interim period leading up to their appointment to the new commission at the end of 2004. At present, larger states, including the UK, nominate two commissioners. Qualified majority voting will be extended from 2005 to 27 new provisions in the treaty, including measures to facilitate the free movement of the union's citizens. Also, the composition and procedure of the European Court will change to reflect the number of new joiners, and measures will be introduced to tackle the problem of case overload and speed up the delivery of judgments.

Countdown to accession

The commission and the acceding states are now finalising the Accession Treaty, which must be approved by the commission and the European Parliament, before being signed by all current and acceding member states in a grand ceremony at the Acropolis in Athens on 16 April. The current Greek Presidency of the EU has stated that it aims for Cyprus to join as a united country and has redoubled its efforts to reach a solution. If this is achieved before signing the Accession Treaty, it will accommodate the agreed terms. In any event, Cyprus will become a member of the union in April.

Once the treaty is signed, the pressure for new members will be to complete the reforms still needed before accession and, in most of them, to win national referenda that will endorse the accession terms. Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen recently told the European Parliament that prospects were generally good and that the problem was more about the level of turnout than the outcome of the vote itself.

Subject to the outcome of those referenda, the acceding states should be able to take part in the European elections in spring 2004. However, once the Accession Treaty is signed, the acceding states will already participate as observers in virtually all of the EU's technical, advisory and policy organs.

Further enlargement

Bulgaria and Romania are not considered to have met the conditions for accession and will join at a later stage. The Greek Presidency will now implement a new enhanced pre-accession strategy for both countries, and aims to conclude negotiations by the end of 2004 and to welcome them into the EU in 2007. Croatia is due to submit its application for membership imminently and the commission has welcomed the aspiration of the countries in the Balkans to join, although it has stated that they are unlikely to be able to enter as a group because of the differences in economic development across the region.

The most controversial issue remains Turkey's application to join the EU. The final position reached at Copenhagen in December was preceded by strong US pressure to extend the benefits of membership to a Muslim country and Nato ally. However, a statement by Valéry Giscard D'Estaing, the president of the Convention for the Future of Europe, declared that to allow Turkey to join would mean “the end of Europe”.

Ultimately, the EU reaffirmed that Turkey should be treated on an equal basis with other candidates and the initiation of accession negotiations would remain unconditionally subject to the fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria, in particular with regard to Turkey's observance of human rights. Turkey's progress will be revisited at the end of 2004 and, if the results are positive, accession talks will begin soon after that. One thing is clear – within the space of just a few years, the EU will have undergone a number of astonishing changes.

Brussels-based Sarah Biontino and London-based Tim Castorina are senior associates in Allen & Overy's antitrust group