I. Candidate countries and potential candidates
The values on which the EU is founded, as set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, are reflected in the accession criteria. These essential conditions, which all candidate countries must satisfy to become a Member State, include the stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, respect for the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities. The current enlargement agenda covers the countries of the Western Balkans and Turkey. The progress towards meeting these criteria is covered in depth in the European Commission's 2015 Enlargement Package1 . This year the Commission introduced a strengthened approach to its assessments in the annual reports on enlargement countries, which not only covered progress but also reported on the state of play and the countries' level of preparedness to take on the obligations of membership. The reports also provide clearer guidance on what the countries are expected to do.
The EU's enlargement policy remains focused on the 'fundamentals first' principle. Reflecting the core EU values and policy priorities, the enlargement process continues to prioritise reforms in the areas of the rule of law, fundamental rights, the strengthening of democratic institutions, including public administration reform, and economic development and competitiveness.
The 2015 EU Enlargement Strategy highlights the main challenges for candidate countries and potential candidates. Regarding fundamental rights, in the Western Balkans and Turkey the Commission continues to underline that while these are often largely enshrined in law, further efforts are needed to ensure implementation in practice. Freedom of expression presents a particular challenge, with ongoing negative developments in a number of countries. The Commission continues to prioritise work on freedom of expression and the media in the EU accession process.
There continues to be a need to better protect minorities, in particular Roma, who continue to suffer from discrimination and difficult living conditions. Discrimination and hostility towards other vulnerable groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons, is a serious concern. Additional work is also required to promote equality between women and men, fight domestic violence, ensure respect for the rights of the child and support persons with disabilities.
The functioning of democratic institutions also requires attention. The role of national parliaments in the reform process to ensure democratic accountability still needs to be strengthened.
Enlargement countries need to ensure the effective functioning of the institutional framework for the protection of fundamental rights and a much more supportive and enabling environment to foster the development of civil society as it will contribute to enhancing political accountability and a better understanding of accession-related reforms. The Commission continues to promote and support candidate countries' participation, and that of countries with which a Stabilisation and Association Agreement has been concluded, as observers in the work of the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency. Positive developments were registered in 2015 regarding The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania and Serbia.