The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 states that any European state that respects the principles of liberty, democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law may apply to join the EU. This was reaffirmed at the European Council held in Copenhagen in 1993, which declared that the associated countries in Central and Eastern Europe “that so desire shall become members of the Union” (EU, 2001). The basic criteria for membership to be achieved by applicant countries are:
Applicants must also have the ability to transpose EU legislation into national legislation and implement it through appropriate administrative and judicial structures, which implies that they shall have effective systems of governance.
In 1997, the EU decided to begin negotiations on enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe, initially with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia (which with Cyprus made up the Luxembourg group). In 1999, enlargement negotiations were expanded to include Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia (which with Malta comprised the Helsinki group). With the exception of Bulgaria and Romania, negotiations with both groups were completed and accession took place on 1 May 2004. Bulgaria and Romania are expected to join the EU on 1 January 2007 but the Accession Treaty does allow entry to be delayed until 2008.
Since 2000, the countries of the Western Balkans have been recognized as potential future members of the EU. Croatia has been granted candidate status and in 2004 European Partnerships were entered into with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro (including the territory of Kosovo as defined by United Nations Security Resolution 1244 of 10 June 1999). The Thessaloniki Agenda of 2003 set out the process by which the Western Balkan countries might achieve EU membership. The methodology has similarities to that applied to the accession of the new Member States. The key difference is that the process is one of stabilization and association. The Western Balkan countries have to commit to stabilization as a condition of receiving the benefits from association with the EU. This reflects their recent turbulent histories and the need to consolidate peace through commitment to the inviolability of international borders, peaceful resolution of conflicts, cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and condemnation of terrorism, violence and extremism. As a result of this history, the land tenure problems of the region have an additional dimension to those of the Central and Eastern European countries joining the EU in 2004 and 2007. The issues involved concern the return of refugees and internally displaced persons, resolution of lost property and occupation rights, and the reconstruction of destroyed property.
Each would-be applicant enters into a Europe Agreement, or a Stabilization and Association Agreement in the case of the Western Balkan countries, with the EU and its Member States. These agreements provide the legal basis for bilateral relations between the EU and the applicant and are intended to establish free trade in industrial products; free movement of services, investment and workers; and the approximation of legislation to that of the EU. They provide for asymmetrical reciprocity, with more rapid liberalization on the part of the EU than the applicant country. Consequently, the applicant country derives many of the benefits of EU membership early in the application process so that there will be very limited transitional arrangements allowed after accession.
The issue of ownership of agricultural land and natural resources by foreigners is a contentious one for many of the applicant countries. There has been the fear that individuals and companies within the EU will take advantage of their greater wealth to buy up relatively inexpensive farmland so that nationals of the applicant countries could find themselves priced out of their own land markets. For example, the Hungarian Government (2002) argued that lifting the ban on the purchase of agricultural land by foreigners “would lead to speculative land purchases and impede the development of viable family farms”. Consequently, the Europe Agreement for Hungary in 1993 included a five-year transition period before EU companies established in Hungary were to be given the right to acquire, use, rent or sell real property, or the right to lease agricultural land. The establishment by EU companies and nationals of Hungarian companies for the purposes of dealing in real estate was specifically excluded from the Agreement.
The Accession Partnership assesses the priority areas for progress and how EU assistance programmes will support such preparations. The assistance programmes include those funded by Phare, and the Special Accession Programme for Agriculture and Rural Development (SAPARD). In due course the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance will incorporate these. Many of the Accession Partnerships contain provisions relevant to land tenure, which are designed to overcome restrictions on land ownership and occupancy that are unacceptable within the EU. For example, the Accession Partnership for Lithuania (adopted in 2001) included the commitment to constitutional amendments so that access to farmland by foreigners would be permitted. The Partnership for each country is complemented by a National Programme for the Adoption of the Acquis. The acquis communautaire is the body of EU legislation that has built up since the Treaty of Rome, including the regulations and directives passed by the Council of Ministers and the judgements of the European Court of Justice. The Commission produces annual regular progress reports on applicant countries to determine their progress in achieving the acquis. Accession negotiations are concerned with the terms under which the applicant adopts and enforces the acquis. The results of the negotiations are incorporated into an accession treaty, which sets out the conditions for accession, amends EU legislation in areas such as representation on EU bodies and qualified majority voting, and enacts any transitional arrangements. After approval by the European Council and the Parliament, the treaty has to be ratified by the EU Member States and the applicant countries.