After years of foot-dragging, the enlargement of the European Union is finally getting under way.
On Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to announce that 10 countries - the 13 applicants minus Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey - should be invited to join the EU by 2004.
The announcement, the first time that applicants will have been given anything like a firm date for membership, is more generous than many dared hope a year ago.
But while Brussels is intent on treating almost all applicants alike, these countries are a highly mixed bunch.
BBC News Online presents a guide to the runners and riders. Click below for details on:
is the poor relation among applicant countries, and one of only three - including Romania and Turkey - likely to be given the brush-off this time round.
The country has suffered from political instability, and from its failure to break with its traditional reliance on the Russian market.
Bulgaria: Key facts
Population: 8.2 million
Economic growth, 2001: 4%
Personal income, % of EU average: 27%
Currency: 1 euro = 1.95 lev
Its economy is highly agrarian, and attempts to boost its presence in high-value sectors such as tourism and hi-tech manufacturing have come to little.
Set against its disadvantages, Bulgaria can boast extreme eagerness to be part of the European club.
The country also has what many regard as a strategic location, on the trade routes between Europe and Asia.
stands out from its fellow applicants: by almost all criteria, especially economic, it is perfectly qualified for membership, and certainly has few of the developmental problems faced by its East European counterparts.
Cyprus: Key facts
Economic growth, 2001: 4%
Personal income, % of EU average: 78%
Currency: 1 euro = 0.57 Cyprus pounds
But the division of the island, resulting from a partial Turkish invasion in 1974, has presented insuperable political problems. Turkey has threatened to annex the island if it joins the EU; Greece has said it will block all enlargement if Cyprus does not join.
In recent years, Brussels seems to have reached an understanding over the island, despite the unresolved division, and Cyprus is now a leading candidate for early membership.
The Czech Republic
has been a leading candidate for years, thanks to its rapid political and economic transition from communism, and its long-established links with the West.
Czech Republic: Key facts
Population: 10.3 million
Economic growth, 2001: 3.3%
Personal income, % of EU average: 56%
Currency: 1 euro = 30.3 Czech koruna
Since its "divorce" from poorer Slovakia in 1993, the Czech Republic has successfully refocused its economy on light, export-oriented manufacturing, especially technology.
This has paid off: after tiny Slovenia, the Czech Republic is per capita the richest economy in the region, parts of the country are even wealthier than the EU average.
If there are question marks over Czech suitability, they surround an occasionally grudging attitude to free-market reforms; privatisation, for example, has been slow, and foreign investment consequently sluggish.
has the distinction of being the only country that has had to reverse reforms to qualify for EU membership.
The Baltic state never acknowledged its inclusion in the Soviet Union, and since independence has linked itself firmly to neighbouring Finland, with which it shares ethnic ties.
Estonia: Key facts
Population: 1.4 million
Economic growth, 2001: 5%
Personal income, % of EU average: 40%
Currency: 1 euro = 15.6 kroon
It has also been the most zealous economic reformer in Eastern Europe, deregulating rapidly, linking its currency to the deutschmark (now euro), introducing a revolutionary low taxation system and throwing itself open to trade.
One minor difficulty is the fact that Russia - which has complained about Estonian treatment of ethnic Russians - could react with alarm to having an EU member on its doorstep.
Like the Czech Republic, Hungary
was never in serious doubt.
The country's past, as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, has given it a Westernised veneer that communism could not erode.
Hungary: Key facts
Population: 10 million
Economic growth, 2001: 3.8%
Personal income, % of EU average: 51%
Currency: 1 euro = 243.5 forint
In economic terms, Hungary has benefited from an influx of foreign investment, drawn in by its free-market policies, expertise in science and other technology-intensive industries, and handy location as a source of exports to the EU.
The country's drawbacks are political: while most Hungarians are moderates, far-right parties have prospered by fanning the flames of nationalism - a fertile topic, given the fact that more than 3 million ethnic Hungarians live in neighbouring countries.
has the misfortune to seem dowdy in relation to Estonia, its shiny northern neighbour.
Indeed, its economy has been unspectacular, thanks to half-hearted liberalisation and the influence of nearby Russia, especially in its banking sector, which has been hit by a number of scandals surrounding money-laundering.
Latvia: Key facts
Population: 2.4 million
Economic growth, 2001: 7.7%
Personal income, % of EU average: 31%
Currency: 1 euro = 0.6 lat
This last has given Latvia a reputation for involvement - albeit relatively tangential - in organised crime, and has reduced foreign investment to a trickle.
That said, Latvia's economy has finally awoken, and was by far the fastest-growing in the region last year.
In terms of reform, too, Latvia has caught up quickly in the past couple of years, and is actively building bridges with the outside world, especially Germany, its historic partner.
has been the laggard among Baltic states, poorer than its neighbours and lacking political consensus on economic reform.
Only thinly-endowed with lucrative industry, Lithuania has been forced to rely on "transit" businesses, such as the transportation of Russian oil to world markets.
Lithuania: Key facts
Population: 3.7 million
Economic growth, 2001: 5.9%
Personal income, % of EU average: 36%
Currency: 1 euro = 3.5 litas
That aside, unemployment remains persistently high, and its largely agrarian economy poses similar challenges to that of Poland, albeit on a far smaller scale.
Ultimately, however, Brussels has been persuaded by the political need to include all three Baltic states, and by recent assurances of rapid economic growth and political reform.
The only question surrounding Malta's
application to join the EU is why it did not happen years ago.
Long dominated by nationalistic, isolationist governments, which at times allied it with communist states and Libya, tiny Malta made up its mind finally to join only in 1998.
Malta: Key facts
Economic growth, 2001: -0.8%
Personal income, % of EU average: 53%
Currency: 1 euro = 0.4 Maltese lira
Malta's decades in the wilderness have left it slightly behind the EU average in terms of the standard of its legislation - especially with regard to environmental regulations.
And its economy is relatively sleepy, having contracted slightly last year.
But to all intents and purposes, Malta is indistinguishable from other southern European countries: poorer and more agrarian than the EU average, but willing to work hard - and small enough to be swallowed without trouble.
is the great prize for EU enlargement: by far the biggest country in the region, and a close ally of Germany, which sees it as an essential buffer against the former Soviet Union.
Poland: Key facts
Population: 38.6 million
Economic growth, 2001: 1.1%
Personal income, % of EU average: 40%
Currency: 1 euro = 4.1 zloty
Frequent changes of government during the 1990s did not prevent Poland pioneering economic reform, and have resulted in a country enjoying rapid growth and more foreign investment than the rest of the region put together.
But Poland has pressing problems, notably its rusting industry and the inefficiency of its huge agricultural sector, which would make it impossible for it to benefit from the Common Agricultural Policy without bankrupting Brussels.
EU members fret about cheap Polish workers flooding west after membership, and remain concerned about the fondness for extreme conservative nationalism.
Along with Bulgaria and Turkey, Romania
is not going to make it this time around, although its hopes of eventual membership remain realistic.
Crushed by arguably the worst communist regime in the region, Romania stumbled into the 1990s with a catastrophic economy and a shattered civil society.
Romania: Key facts
Population: 22.4 million
Economic growth, 2001: 5.3%
Personal income, % of EU average: 24%
Currency: 1 euro = 31,353 lei
The communist Ceausescu regime ran the economy into the ground in its attempt to pay off the country's national debt, a policy that impoverished industry to the point of extinction.
The effects of this - poverty and political instability - have prevented Romania making much headway in economic reform, leaving the country well below the standards required by Brussels.
Romania remains among the most europhile candidates, however, and has expressed admirable determination to reform; since the country's considerable sizes makes it a valuable prize, Brussels may not be shunning it for long.
Until recently, Slovakia
- the poorer eastern half of the former Czechslovakia - seemed to be completely out the EU running.
The country was left in the economic lurch after the Czech Republic ended up with most of the country's prized industry - a deficiency that was compounded by a stridently nationalist government during much of the 1990s.
Slovakia: Key facts
Population: 5.4 million
Economic growth, 2001: 3.3%
Personal income, % of EU average: 46%
Currency: 1 euro = 42 Slovak koruna
This has left the country with the region's highest rate of unemployment, especially in the depressed east of the country, which was highly dependent on manufacturing arms for export around the Soviet bloc.
But Slovakia has caught up fast under a new centre-left government, elected in 1998, and the advantages of its central location have helped attract investment and buoy the economy.
, which emerged almost unscathed from the bloodstained disintegration of Yugoslavia, has consistently been Eastern Europe's richest state by far.
Slovenia: Key facts
Population: 2 million
Economic growth, 2001: 3%
Personal income, % of EU average: 68%
Currency: 1 euro = 224 tolar
Under communism, Yugoslavia was semi-liberalised and far more prosperous than its neighbours, and Slovenia - with its light industry, high-value agriculture and tourism - was at the top of the heap.
In terms of EU preparedness, Slovenia wins points for its economy, but comes in for criticism for its unwillingness to liberalise its markets as quickly as Brussels would like.
is the only applicant country to remain completely empty-handed after this week's deliberations.
Ironically, the country was one of the first to apply - it opened talks in 1959, the year after the EU came into being - but its membership has been stymied by opposition from Greece.
Turkey: Key facts
Population: 65.3 million
Economic growth, 2001: -7.4%
Personal income, % of EU average: 25%
Currency: 1 euro = 1,585,368 lira
Even if, as now seems increasingly likely, tensions with Greece can be reduced to manageable levels, Turkey's application faces a number of hurdles.
The economy is still mired in crisis after a traumatic devaluation in 2001, governments come and go rapidly, and some observers are concerned about human rights.
And not everyone in Brussels is comfortable with the idea of welcoming in Turkey, a country they see as only marginally European.