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1. The Policy

Enlargement is one of the most important and most successful EU foreign-policy instruments. It has helped end Europeís division after over four decades. It has expanded the zone of peace and stability, single market, liberty and democracy.

The carefully managed process of enlargement spreads solidarity across Europe and enhances the European Unionís collective bargaining power on the world stage. The enlarged EU is more competitive and better able to respond to the challenges of globalisation.

The pull of EU membership acts as a powerful incentive for the democratic and economic transformation of applicant countries. At the same time, citizens across Europe benefit from having neighbours with stable democracies and prosperous market economies.

Deepening European integration and widening EU membership have gone hand-in-hand since the signing of the Treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. Each successive enlargement has brought major benefits to European citizens and new opportunities for economic development.

According to Article 49 of the Treaty on the European Union, any European country which respects the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law may apply for membership. However, in order to join the EU, each applicant country must meet a set of established political and economic criteria, i.e. Copenhagen criteria. It has to adopt the entire body of existing EU legislation (known as the acquis communautaire) into its own legal system and show evidence of a stable and well-functioning democracy and economy.

In addition, the EU must also be able to integrate new members. The Unionís institutions and policies have to develop accordingly, to accommodate an increasing membership without endangering its own key functions and finances.

Accession talks begin with a screening process to determine the extent to which applicants meet the EUís rules and regulations (acquis communautaire). The acquis is divided into 35 chapters which describe anything from free movement of goods to agriculture to competition. Detailed negotiations at a ministerial level take place to establish the terms under which applicants will meet and implement the rules in each chapter. The European Commission proposes common negotiating positions for the EU on each chapter, which must be approved unanimously by the Council of Ministers. In all areas of the acquis, the candidate country must bring its institutions, management capacity and administrative and judicial systems up to EU standards. During negotiations, applicants may request transition periods for complying with certain EU rules.

All candidates receive financial assistance from the EU, mainly to aid in the accession process. Chapters of the acquis can only be opened and closed with the approval of all 27 member states. The Commission issues progress reports to the Council and European Parliament assessing the progress achieved by the candidate country.

Once negotiations are completed, the agreements reached are incorporated into a draft accession treaty, which is submitted to the Council for approval and to the European Parliament for assent. After signature, the accession treaty must be ratified by each EU member and the candidate country.

The current EU enlargement perspective is expanded to countries in South East Europe - Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo (under UN Security Council Resolution 1244).

The Western Balkans and support to their preparation for future integration into European structures and ultimate membership into the Union is a high priority for the EU. The fundamental objective for the Western Balkans region is ensuring that military conflict becomes unthinkable Ė expanding to the region the area of peace, stability, prosperity and freedom established over the last 50 years through European integration.

The Copenhagen European Council held in 2002 confirmed the European perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans, as potential candidates. At the Thessaloniki Summit between the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans in 2003, the prospect of European integration was consolidated for these countries. The Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) is the EUís policy framework for the Western Balkan countries, all the way to their eventual accession.

Since 2000, the Commission has each year published its annual Enlargement Strategy document in order to keep citizens of the EU and the candidate countries informed of the enlargement policy in process. The document includes a summary of the progress made over the last twelve months by each of the present candidate and potential candidate countries. Also, separate progress reports on individual countries are adopted.

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