In May 2004 the largest European Union expansion to date will take place. EU membership is expected to enhance a higher level of political stability and faster economic growth within the admitted countries. Not all applicants will receive membership next year, however. When the European Commission issued the first invitations in 1997, it divided the candidates into two waves, based on their projected admission date. Later, some of the second-wave countries were moved to the first-wave due to fast implementation of reforms, while others remained part of the second group. This paper studies the paths to accession of three Eastern European countries ? Bulgaria, Slovakia and Hungary - each of which has had a different negotiation status. Hungary started off within the first-wave states and has remained one of the leading applicants. Slovakia in 1997 was considered a second-wave candidate, but in 2001 was moved to the group of countries that would gain admission first. Bulgaria began with a second-wave status and did not manage to change it. This paper aims to address this differentiation and to analyze the factors behind it. Some of the factors that most apparently distinguish the three studied applicants are: the timing of economic and political reforms; the level of political and institutional stability within a country; the amount of foreign direct investment flows; the development of the service sector and the role of agriculture in the economy; the stage of privatization development; and the level of trade affinity with European Union members.