Copenhagen criteria

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The Copenhagen criteria are the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union. The criteria require that a state has the institutions to preserve democratic governance and human rights, has a functioning market economy, and accepts the obligations and intent of the EU.

These membership criteria were laid down at the June 1993 European Council in Copenhagen, Denmark, from which they take their name. Excerpt from the Copenhagen Presidency conclusions:[2]

Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate's ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

Most of these elements have been clarified over the last decade by legislation and other decisions of the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as by the case law of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. However, there are sometimes slightly conflicting interpretations in current member states—some examples of this are given below.

European Union membership criteria

During the negotiations with each candidate country, progress towards meeting the Copenhagen criteria is regularly monitored. On the basis of this, decisions are made as to whether and when a particular country should join, or what actions need to be taken before joining is possible.

The European Union Membership criteria are defined by the three documents:

When agreed in 1993, there was no mechanism for ensuring that any country which was already an EU member state was in compliance with these criteria. However, arrangements have now been put in place to police compliance with these criteria, following the "sanctions" imposed against the Austrian government of Wolfgang Schüssel in early 2000 by the other 14 Member States' governments. These arrangements came into effect on 1 February 2003 under the provisions of the Treaty of Nice.[citation needed]

Geographic criteria

Article 49 (formerly Article O) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU)[3] or Maastricht Treaty states that any European country that respects the principles of the EU may apply to join. Countries' classification as European is "subject to political assessment"[4] by the Commission and more importantly—the European Council.

In 1987, Morocco applied to join the European Communities (the precursor to the European Union). The application was rejected on the grounds that Morocco was not considered to be a "European country" and hence could not join. This geographic membership criterion was later enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria.

Although non-European states are not considered eligible to be members, they may enjoy varying degrees of integration with the EU, set out by international agreements. The general capacity of the community and the member states to conclude association agreements with third countries is being developed. Moreover, specific frameworks for integration with third countries are emerging—including most prominently the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). This notably replaces the Barcelona process which previously provided the framework for the EU's relations with its Mediterranean neighbours in North Africa and Western Asia.

The ENP should not be confused with the Stabilisation and Association Process in the Western Balkans or the European Economic Area. Russia does not fall within the scope of the ENP, but is subject to a separate framework. The European Neighbourhood Policy can be interpreted as the drawing up of the Union's borders for the foreseeable future. Another way the EU is integrating with neighbouring countries is through the Union for the Mediterranean, made up of EU countries and others bordering the Mediterranean sea.

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 their 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[citation needed] 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. A Council of Europe convention, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (treaty No. 157) reflected this principle. But the Convention did not include a clear definition of what constituted a national minority. As a result, some signatory states added official declarations on the matter:[5]

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 Euro convergence criteria and European Exchange Rate Mechanism has been used to prepare countries for joining the Eurozone, both founding and later members.

Legislative alignment

Finally, and technically outside the Copenhagen criteria, comes the further requirement that all prospective members 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 talks with Croatia, Turkey and Iceland the acquis has been split further into 35 chapters.


  1. ^ a b "European Commission—Enlargement—Potential Candidates". Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  2. ^ "Presidency Conclusion Copenhagen European Council - 21-22 June 1993" (PDF). Retrieved 28 February 2020.
  3. ^ The head of states of the EU member states (7 February 1992). "The Maastricht Treaty" (PDF). Treaty on the European Union. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 March 2006. Retrieved 9 July 2008.
  4. ^ Members of the European Parliament (19 May 1998). "Legal questions of enlargement". Enlargement of the European Union. The European Parliament. Retrieved 9 July 2008.
  5. ^ "Search on Treaties". Treaty Office.