EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life



Enlargement refers to the process of accession of new Member States to the European Union, as provided for in Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). The conditions of admission and any transition periods must be agreed between the Member States and the applicant state.

Historical development

Over the years, enlargement has impacted considerably on employment and industrial relations in the EU. The six founding nations – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – established the European Economic Community under the Treaty of Rome that was signed in 1957. These countries shared a common western European tradition of employment and industrial relations.

First enlargement rounds

Denmark, Ireland and the UK, which joined in 1973, brought different experiences and industrial relations traditions, and their accession coincided with a decisive change in the EU’s social policy following the adoption of the Social Action Programme in 1974. With the inclusion of Greece in 1981 and Portugal and Spain in 1986, the EU incorporated three countries that had only recently emerged from dictatorship regimes. They brought with them new constitutional experiences reflecting a sensitivity towards fundamental social rights, evident in the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers that was adopted in 1989.

The accession of Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995 expanded the union to embrace three countries with relatively high levels of trade union membership, traditions of social partnership and active labour market policies. The Treaty of Amsterdam that was signed in 1997 included a new title on employment.

Enlargement to central and eastern Europe

Ten countries – Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia – joined the EU on 1 May 2004. They were followed by Bulgaria and Romania, which joined on 1 January 2007. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania marked the next stage of a development that had its roots in the collapse of communism, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This offered an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to extend European integration into central and eastern Europe. Major challenges for the EU in terms of employment and industrial relations included improving the living and working conditions of the new Member States and promoting social dialogue in countries with little or no tradition of free collective bargaining and social partnership. Finally, Croatia concluded accession negotiations in 2011 and acceded to the EU on 1 July 2013.


One of the biggest challenges to the European Union in recent years has been the departure of the United Kingdom – a process familiarly known as ‘Brexit’. The people of the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and officially left on 31 January 2020. This leaves the total number of EU Member States at 27.


As of March 2021, there are five candidate countries: Albania, which was granted candidate status in June 2014; Montenegro, which opened accession negotiations in June 2012; North Macedonia, which has been a candidate country since December 2005; Serbia, which was granted candidate status in March 2012; and Turkey, whose accession negotiations started in 2005. Negotiations with Turkey are currently at a standstill due to a number of disputes between the Turkish government and the EU, as well as some Member States such as Cyprus and Greece.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kosovo, are potential candidate countries.

Reforming the accession process

On 5 February 2020, the European Commission adopted a communication that sets out concrete proposals for driving forward the accession process, making it more transparent and dynamic, as well as subject to stronger political engagement.

The communication underlines that the accession process will be based on objective and clear criteria, with a strong focus on the necessary reforms. Some possible incentives could be a ‘phasing-in’ to individual EU policies, the EU market and EU programmes – while ensuring a level playing field – as well as increased funding and investments. Equally, there is a need for the EU to be able to more effectively and proportionally sanction any serious stagnation or backsliding in the implementation of reform processes. The Commission’s proposals underline the importance of a merit-based accession process built on trust, mutual confidence and clear commitments by the EU and the Western Balkans.

In March 2020, the Council endorsed the Commission communication, and decided to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The Commission presented its proposals for the negotiating frameworks in July 2020.


The past and future enlargement of the EU presents a range of new challenges, not least in terms of labour migration and industrial relations. This should be seen not just from the perspective of the older Member States, which may have concerns about immigration, but also from the point of view of the newer Member States, where labour shortages have occurred as a result of large-scale emigration. Recent economic difficulties, however, have had an impact on migration patterns.

Challenges are also likely to arise with regard to industrial relations in the newer Member States. Issues here include the fact that industrial relations are rather weak at sectoral level and collective bargaining is carried out mainly at company level. Similarly, collective bargaining coverage and trade union density is lower in the newer Member States, where there is generally a less developed system of social dialogue. Moreover, wages are lower in the newer Member States than in the older Member States, and working time tends to be longer.

All of this highlights the challenges to achieving economic and social convergence, one of the main objectives of Economic and Monetary Union and of the European Union as a whole. Eurofound reports regularly on trends in upward convergence in the socioeconomic dimension, as well as in the dimensions outlined in the European Pillar of Social Rights at Member State level.

Related dictionary terms

Accession collective bargaining Economic and Monetary Union migration social dialogue Social Action Programme Treaty of Amsterdam Treaty on European Union


Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.



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