Accession negotiations mark a key moment of a country's EU integration processes. The candidate country’s accession negotiation process consists of three phases:
- The acquisition of the status of candidate country- which does not automatically mean the opening accession negotiations.
- The formal opening of accession negotiations- a process that involves the adoption of the acquis in the national legal system, preparations for its implementation and the implementation of the legal, political, economic, administrative and other reforms necessary for the country to join the EU, otherwise known as the accession criteria..
- Closing of negotiations and completion of reforms - after this moment the candidate country may join the EU.
Meeting the accession criteria, i.e. alignment with the EU acquis, consists of three complementary activities:
- In the approximation of national legislation with the EU acquis;
- In the establishing the necessary institutions institutions for the implementation of the respective legislation and enhancing administrative capacities;
- In the proving through consistent track record the implementation of approximated legislation.
Negotiations take place between the ministers and ambassadors of the member states’ governments and the candidate country in the Intergovernmental Conference. The first Intergovernmental Conference is the most important one politically as it sets the general framework for the negotiations and their official opening. Therein, the general negotiating positions between the EU and the candidate country are exchanged and the negotiating groups are introduced to each other.
For purposes of the negotiation process, the EU acquis is divided into 35 negotiating chapters (policy areas). The candidate country does not negotiate on the EU acquis, but on its transposition and implementation.
The process starts with with the analytical evaluation of the approximation of legislation with the acquis, otherwise known as the screening process. Screening is organized in two stages:
- In the Explanatory Meetings (Multilateral), where the European Commission explains the EU acquis to the candidate country; and
- In the Bilateral Meetings, where it is the candidate country that must present its level of alignment with the acquis and express its readiness for its full alignment in the future.
Generally, the screening process takes from 1 to 2 years. The Commission then draws up a screening report presenting to the member states findings on the level of preparation of the candidate country for each negotiating chapter. The conclusion of this report is the recommendation to directly open negotiations or set certain criteria for opening of the negotiations - opening benchmarks- which should be met.
Before negotiations on specific chapters can begin, the candidate country must submit its negotiating position, while the EU endorses its common position. For most chapters the EU sets closing benchmarks, which must be met by the candidate country before negotiations on the respective chapter can be closed.
The length of the negotiations depends on the speed of implementation of reforms and approximation of the EU legislation (acquis) by the candidate country. Once an agreement is reached between the EU and the candidate country, and once the closing benchmarks have been met, the respective chapter is considered "partially closed". In any case, negotiations are not considered fully closed for one chapter until each EU member state is fully satisfied with the candidate country's progress in that chapter. The negotiation process ends only after each negotiating chapter is closed, as confirmed by the relevant conclusions of the European Council.
The results of the negotiations are comprised in the provisions of the Accession Treaty, which is then signed by the candidate country and EU institutions and ratified by the latter and each member state. Subsequently, the candidate country becomes a member of the European Union.