The Copenhagen criteria

Any country seeking membership of the European Union (EU) must conform to the conditions set out by Article 49 and the principles laid down in Article 6(1) of the Treaty on European Union. The relevant criteria were established by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993 and strengthened by the Madrid European Council in 1995.

To join the EU, a new Member State must meet three criteria:

  • political - stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities;
  • economic - existence of a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union;
  • acceptance of the Community acquis - ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

For the European Council to decide to open negotiations, each political criterion must be satisfied.

Any country that wishes to join the Union must meet these accession criteria. The pre-accession strategy and accession negotiations provide the necessary framework and instruments.

Political criteria

Functional democratic governance requires that all citizens of the country should be able to participate, on an equal basis, in the political decision making at every single governing level, from local municipalities up to the highest, national, level. This also requires free elections with a secret ballot, the right to establish political parties without any hindrance from the state; fair and equal access to a free press; free trade union organisations; freedom of personal opinion, and executive powers restricted by laws and allowing free access to judges independent of the executive.

Rule of law
The rule of law implies that government authority may only be exercised in accordance with documented laws, which were adopted through an established procedure. The principle is intended to be a safeguard against arbitrary rulings in individual cases.

Human rights
Human rights are those rights which every person holds because of his/her quality as a human being; human rights are "inalienable" and belonging to all humans. If a right is inalienable, that means it cannot be bestowed, granted, limited, bartered away, or sold away (e.g. one cannot sell oneself into slavery). These include the right to life, the right to be prosecuted only according to the laws that are in existence at the time of the offence, the right to be free from slavery, and the right to be free from torture.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is considered the most authoritative formulation of human rights, although it lacks the more effective enforcement mechanism of the European Convention on Human Rights. The requirement to fall in line with this formulation forced several nations that recently joined the EU to implement major changes in their legislation, public services and judiciary. Many of the changes involved the treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, or removal of disparities of treatment between different political factions.

Respect for and protection of minorities
Members of such national minorities should be able to maintain their distinctive culture and practices, including their language (as far as not contrary to the human rights of other people, nor to democratic procedures and rule of law), without suffering any discrimination (see also the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities", Council of Europe 1995).

The convention from the Council of Europe on this issue was a major breakthrough in this field. However the area was so sensitive that the convention does not yet include a clear definition of such minorities. As a result, many of the signatory states added official clarifications to their signature on which minorities in their country were involved. Some examples of defined national minorities are:

  • in Denmark: the "German minority in South Jutland"
  • in Germany: "Danes of German citizenship and the members of the Sorbian (Lusatia Sorbs) people with German citizenship ... the ethnic groups traditionally resident in Germany, the Frisians of German citizenship and the Sinti and Roma of German citizenship"
  • in Slovenija: "Italian and Hungarian National Minorities"
  • in the United Kingdom: the Cornish minority in Cornwall and Irish Nationalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland
  • in Austria: the Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Roma, and Sinti groups
  • in Romania: Romania recognizes 20 national minorities - the electoral law guarantees them parliamentary representation
  • in Ireland: Irish travellers.

Many other signatories simply stated that they do not have any national minorities as so defined.

A consensus was reached (among other legal experts, the so-called Groups of Venice) that this convention refers to any ethnic, linguistic or religious people that defines itself as a distinctive group, that forms the historic population or a significant historic and current minority in a well-defined area, and that maintains stable and friendly relations with the state in which it lives. Some experts and countries wanted to go further. Nevertheless, recent minorities, such as immigrant populations, have nowhere been listed by signatory countries as minorities concerned by this convention.

Economic criteria

The economic criteria, broadly speaking, require that candidate countries have a functioning market economy and that their producers have the capability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. The European Exchange Rate Mechanism has been used to prepare countries for joining the Eurozone, both founding and later members.

Legislative alignment

Technically this is outside the Copenhagen criteria, but it is a further requirement of EU membership that all member states must enact legislation to bring their laws into line with the body of European law built up over the history of the Union, known as the acquis communautaire. In preparing for each admission, the acquis is divided into separate chapters, each dealing with different policy areas. For the process of the fifth enlargement that concluded with the admission of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, there were 31 chapters. For the ongoing talks with Croatia and Turkey the acquis has been split further into 35 chapters.