10th anniversary of the biggest EU enlargement: Are we better off?

On May 1, 2004 Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Malta, Cyprus, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia have joined the European Union. Would you say that the EU is better off with 10 (plus 3) new countries or if we look back maybe the enlargement process was a bit too fast for everybody? Read few comments.

Niklas Helwig, Research Fellow – The European Union Research Programme, Finnish institute of International Affairs

The answer to your question is that the EU is definitely better off with the 13 new member countries. After the end of the cold war, it was the only feasible policy of the EU to offer the countries in Europe’s East a European perspective. First and foremost, the new countries benefitted greatly from accession. Just one example: while the GDP per capita in Slovakia was on the same level as Ukraine in 1990, it is now 4 times as high. Most of the increase took place from the early 2000s onwards. But also the EU itself benefitted from its new members. Many of the new member states play a leading role in the policy making of the Union. Poland, for example, is a major player in Europe’s foreign policy and his foreign minister was part of the diplomatic initiative of the EU in Kiev this spring together with his French and German counterparts. The Ukraine crisis shows especially, the success of the enlargement policy, which stabilized many of the newly independent countries by firmly basing them into the western community of values. Not at least because of the achievement connected to the enlargement process, the European Union was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

Obviously the ‘big bang’ enlargement also came with its challenges. The European Union institutions had to digest, that now representatives from 28 instead of 15 member states are around the table. The Lisbon treaty brought changes to the institutional setup to make the decision-making more effective in an enlarged Union. A smooth functioning of the Brussels machinery could continue. Lately, possible migration challenges from Romania and Bulgaria made the headlines in the UK, but also in other countries such as Germany. Obviously, the challenges that for example arise for some cities in Germany with a high immigration rate should not be downplayed. However, the solution should not be the use of anti- EU rhetoric, but a better management of the transition period and in a better assistance of the local communities that face transition challenges.

After all, what we witness more and more now, is not a dividing line between East and West Europe, or ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe . The EU is confronted with new dividing lines between North and South, Creditors and debtors or Euro and non-Euro countries. Avoiding new divisions will be one of the next key challenges for the EU in the upcoming 10 years.

Frank HägeLecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Limerick

All in all, the 2004 enlargement seems to have been a success story. The prospect of becoming an EU member state was an important incentive in developing and maintaining democratic standards and functioning market economies for the countries transitioning from communist rule. In this regard, the prospect of enlargement and then the integration in the EU was very much a stabilizing factor in Central and Eastern Europe. That a trajectory towards democracy and the rule of law of transitioning countries cannot be taken for granted is best illustrated by current developments in Northern Africa after the Arab Spring revolutions and developments at the current EU’s Eastern periphery (e.g. Belarus and Ukraine).

The 2007 accession of Romania and Bulgaria might have been a bit too hasty, especially with respect to the rule of law and the fight against corruption. These countries did not fulfil European standards with respect to those issues and the EU has lost much leverage to affect positive changes once they became members, but the accession process of Croatia seems to indicate that the EU has learnt from this mistake.

Marjan SvetličičProfessor of International Economic Relations and Negotiations, University of Ljubljana

The answer is now not so simple. Before the crises it was no doubt that the big bang enlargement stimulated growth in EU 15 and the position of EU in the global economy. This is not so clear with the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria. Looking now it seems to be a little premature; they were not completely ready which created some problems for EU as a whole. Generally it is safe to claim that EU is nevertheless better off after enlargement in spite of many problems in its functioning and those induced by the crises. Assessment is of course nuanced when looking at old and new members or country by country. Among EU 15, Austria is being the major beneficiary. High employment in EU 15 has been kept before the crises to a large extent thanks to the increasing export to new members. On the other hand exports growth rates of EU-10 were substantially higher than world average before the onset of the crisis, most likely a result of still ongoing transition effect and improved access to EU-15 market after their accession to the EU. The new member states also succeed to shift from labour intensive towards medium- and high-tech intensive products.

Crises revealed some problems in the functioning of the EU as a whole which were accentuated by differences in the development level between old and new members. It revealed that the convergence was not fast enough that differences during the crises increased, that new members lagged behind in competitiveness that reforms in many of them slowed down after first positive effects of enlargement were consumed. Perhaps the major problem was that incumbent members, particularly Germany, thought that after enlargement adjustments are necessary only in new members. However “one needs two to dance”. Hence old members have to adjust as well. It is not sustainable that some countries, particularly Germany remains for years net exporter to other members and new members net importers.

Second problem was that for the new members EU integration started to be the major strategic orientation. They forgot that in today’s global world it is a must to walk on two legs; regional (EU) and global particularly in view of Asia (particularly China) started to be the engine of global growth. Crises has not been used enough as an opportunity to diversify and expand trade and FDI with Asia and in such a way grasp the benefits of its high growth rates and in such a way facilitate crises exit strategy both for old and new member EU states. Lastly the problems of new members and EU in general related to the crises were its rather late and not decisive reaction which increased the costs of adjustments.

Overall it can be assessed that EU is in spite of difficulties better off after that it would have been without the enlargement. If many mistakes in this process and in functioning of EU would have been avoided the results of enlargement could be even better.

Alexander Apostolides, Lecturer of Economics and Economic History, European University of Cyprus

1) Some say that with hindsight the decision to push countries not only in Europe but also in the Eurozone might seem rushed. Enlargement and integration take tremendous effort, and the disillusionment with “new” Europeans with the EU (as well as “old Europe” disillusionment with developments in these “new” states) is blamed on the decision to push in such a rapid pace. I however think that the real culprit was National politics that prevented both enlargement and integration taking its natural and rational course. Thus it is not the speed of enlargement that was the issue: it was the emerging local politics that have remained parochial even as Europe was expanding that led to the disappointment.

Toms Rostoks, Researcher, Latvian Institute of International Affairs

In my opinion, the EU enlargement has been a tremendous success because it has shown what can be achieved by determined reform-minded governments in Central and Eastern Europe. Both old and new member states have benefited from enlargement. New member states have benefited financially from increased EU funding and their citizens have enjoyed greater freedom of movement. But old member states have also benefited because of increased stability and prosperity on their doorsteps. EU enlargement was a historical possibility, a window of opportunity, and the current events in Ukraine bear witness of what is happening with countries that do not formally belong to the community of EU and NATO member states.

Latvian EU membership has been mostly positive because of the reasons explained above. One largely negative aspect of freedom of movement and increased possibilities to seek employment in other EU member states has been the fact that an estimated 200 000 Latvians have emigrated to other member states, thus creating a serious demographic problem for a small country of 2 million inhabitants. There is however, hope that either most of them will return some day or that economic growth will be possible for Latvia with a smaller population.

Péteris Timofejevs HenrikssonLecturer, Umeå University

Based on what I have learnt through my own research and by reading the research of other scholars, I would say that my impression is that the enlargement was a political decision and that mostly political arguments won. There are also many scholars that have found that the then candidate countries were not that well reformed and adapted to enter the EU so quickly. Many reforms would have to be fully implemented before the candidate countries could be admitted; it seems that it was not always the case. Moreover, there seems to be many divisions between the so-called “new” and “old” member states, for instance, when it comes to attitude towards Russia (security vs. trade interests), wealth (“rich” Northern and Western countries vs. “poor” Southern and Eastern member states) and values (attitudes towards religion and LGBT rights, for instance).

On the other hand, I would not like to involve into any kind of counter-factual speculations about whether it would have been better that the Central and East European countries had not joined the EU in 2004 (and in 2007 and in 2013). I believe that, geopolitically, the EU is better off when it is united as a continent and includes both East and West European states.

Marius SkuodisLecturer, Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University

Overall, I would conclude that the biggest wave of enlargement has strengthened the EU in both economic and political terms. The fact that the EU has made the right decision is especially evident in the context of the current events in Ukraine as well as broader developments in the post-communist EU neighbourhood over the past decade.

Although one could remember the pre-accession doubts about the capacity of the EU to absorb 10 countries with much lower income levels than in the rest of the EU, the convergence has been remarkable. Just to illustrate, in the period of 2000–2012 per-capita GDP (in PPP) in 10 continental EU newcomers increased from 43% to 61% of the EU average. Regrettably, we cannot say the same about convergence dynamics in some “old” member states. In comparison, per-capita GDP in Portugal grew from 56% to only 59% of the EU average in the same period and in Spain remained unchanged at 77 %.

Moreover, in my view, over the last decade 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004 have managed to become active contributors to the EU policy agenda. Since 2004, 6 of them have held successful Presidencies of the Council of the EU; the same number of countries has also introduced the euro. It is obvious that the integration process in the region is not yet finished and a lot of homework still needs to be done, but I would say that those 10 countries that used to be called newcomers in the past has brought much needed dynamism to the EU.


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