The rules for EU membership require that the country in question is located in geographical Europe - for this reason Morocco's application was denied a few decades ago and even Israel cannot apply despite being a highly developed country. The sole exception to the rule is Cyprus, but it's contentious whether or not it's actually in Asia.

But why limit membership to European countries? What difference does it make to existing EU members? If a country is sufficiently developed and willing to adhere to EU rules, why not admit it into the Union?

  • 3
    The Union would need a new name.
    – chirlu
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 9:10
  • 3
    It's called the European Union for a reason.
    – Nij
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 9:28
  • 6
    @Nin Eurovision also had the word Euro but somehow Australia participates there without issues. Why care about the name so much? Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 10:01
  • 1
    This is a good question (+1) for which I also would like to know the answer (i.e. why was that requirement added to the Copenhagen Criteria?). However, if it contributes somewhat, I feel the European Neighbourhood Policy might be relevant. It's not an exception to your question (it still has geographical criteria) but it does show that at least some "factions" in the EU might be favorable to enlarge the union beyond its "continental borders".
    – armatita
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 13:40
  • 3
    It is worth remembering that the EU is an evolution of previous, smaller and less ambitious projects (e.g. the European Coal and Steel Community) and that part of the push behind it was the idea that trade links would help prevent another European war, specially between France and Germany. At the time there was less concern about other countries (and there were a lot less of "other countries", due to colonialism).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 8, 2018 at 14:18

3 Answers 3


It's because of the current treaties (emphasis mine):

The Treaty on the European Union states that any European country may apply for membership if it respects the democratic values of the EU and is committed to promoting them.

To the best of my knowledge the European criteria has always been around. There have been debate over what the criteria is to qualify as a European country. Examples off the top of my head:

Some put cultural criteria forward. Religious ones in particular (i.e. must have Christian roots), so as to deny entry to Turkey. But then, consider Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is well on its way to joining, or Albania. There's little if any contention on letting the latter two countries join the EU.

I'm not aware of any similar arguments having been made against orthodox countries when members all had Catholic or Protestant roots. The point would be moot today, since Greece joined, then Cyprus and Romania, and soon Serbia. Why not throw in Moldavia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The other main criteria has been strictly geographical. Turkey and Russia, the argument goes, should be allowed in because they've territory in Europe; or denied entry, because they've vast swaths of territory in Asia. Non-contentious countries, like Iceland and Norway, would of course be allowed in.

As an aside, Georgia should be allowed to join based on geography, since it's part of Europe. And sure enough, it's in talks about doing so. As a thought experiment, consider whether Armenia and Azerbaijan, both part of the Caucasus and the EaP, should eventually be allowed in too. (Yes, that would mean the EU having a border with Iran if either did.)

Yet another criteria combines a bit of both aspects, and revolves around the Mediterranean basin in the sense that the entire area shares ties owing to the Roman empire. It has been around since the early days of the EU - and even had proponents in the UK, of all places. (As a thought experiment, why not also consider Hellenistic heritage if that argument ever prevails. That would take the EU as far east as Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

At any rate, your specific questions:

But why limit membership to European countries?

What a European country is isn't so clearcut, and subject to a lot of debate in practice.

What difference does it make to existing EU members?

Many things, because citizens in member states don't all agree to what is admissible. In particular a great many Europeans aren't too keen on having free movement between e.g. North African countries and Continental Europe. Plus, you need to keep protecting borders in mind.

If a country is sufficiently developed and willing to adhere to EU rules, why not admit it into the Union?

It's already being explored, in a sense. See for instance Turkey - which many in Europe would argue is not European, even though the Ottoman Empire traditionally has been viewed as a European power and a successor state of the Roman Empire.

  • 1
    whiteness is also a factor.
    – user17569
    Commented Mar 9, 2018 at 0:03
  • Bosnia is a majority Christian country founded by Pagans turned to Christians. What about it?
    – Davor
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 15:34

Geographical closeness is an important factor for living and working together in an organization like the EU next to cultural, developmental and political factors. The rest is just coincidence, no causation. For example the EU is still negotiating with Turkey, although most of it lies in Asia, so it seems that the EU would in principle be willing to include members not being located only in Europe. I don't know of a hard limitation on Europe except maybe in the name of the EU (which could be potentially changed). On the other hand the EU has grown a lot in the last decades (mostly eastwards), but this seems to also bring lots of problem regarding cohesion within the union (see Brexit for example). So the EU just might not be able to expand currently and the chance for countries from more far away to be included might be slim anyway.


In addition to Denis de Bernardy's excellent answer, there's the issue about the EU's final goal. Some european leaders, such as Valéry Giscard d'Estaing or Helmut Kohl, saw the EU as a path towards the creation of a United States of Europe, with former national sovereign states melting into a single big country, and this has been until recently the common position of country members like France and Germany. Other members (notably, the UK) didn't like that vision and regarded the EU as just a trade treaty on steroids.

As a result, the UK had no problems with ever-expanding the EU to other countries as long as it made sense from an economic point of view, but those members who had the ultimate goal of founding a United States of Europe were much more worried about what problems this new country would have to deal with if it were too much heterogenous in wealth, race, religion and social values. In the end, it is precisely some of those problems, such as uncontrolled migration among state members which has made some anti-European movements and political parties grow, and have caused Brexit.

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