An historic EU enlargement

| April 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
This acrylic painting by a group of students from Nivelles, Belgium, is called The European Tree. It won first prize in a contest designed to help students understand the concept of European citizenship.

This acrylic painting by a group of students from Nivelles, Belgium, is called The European Tree. It won first prize in a contest designed to help students understand the concept of European citizenship.

When 10 Central and Eastern European countries joined the European Union on May 1, 2004, enlarging the union from 15 to 25 member states, a new chapter in Europe’s history books was written with the new members claiming their rightful place within the European family.
It was an historic development and the most ambitious initiative in Europe’s enlargement process — the largest single enlargement in terms of number of countries, territory and population. The 10 acceding countries — Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Cyprus and Malta — brought nearly 80 million European citizens to the Union, along with their dreams of freedom and prosperity.
For years, EU enlargement has been a force driving personal freedom and economic vitality. It has been a force spreading stability and democracy and advancing the rule of law and the protection of human rights to its new members and even beyond its borders.
Enlargement has increased the EU’s global standing by giving it a bigger weight in world affairs, whether in trade talks or addressing issues such as climate change, energy security and regional stability. Enlargement has also helped boost the EU’s crisis management capacity. With the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty and under the leadership of Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission, the EU has been able to effectively lead peace-making, peacekeeping, recovery and reconstruction missions in a more coherent manner.
There’s little doubt the 2004 enlargement resulted in major economic, socio-political and institutional changes. Both the new and old member states stood to gain from the 2004 enlargement. To be eligible for EU membership, acceding countries had to adopt all EU rules and regulations, fast-tracking the modernization of their economies, which in turn generated stronger economic stability and more opportunities for businesses and the labour market. They had to reform their judiciaries and public administrations, making them more transparent and efficient.
Figures show that there were benefits across the board. Trade between the old and new member states increased more than threefold in the years since the 2004 and 2007 enlargements and the flow of foreign direct investment into the acceding countries also climbed. Even more telling is the fivefold increase in trade among the new members themselves. Six of the 10 members have introduced the common currency, the euro, and others will follow suit. Most recently, Latvia adopted the euro in January 2014.
Increased intra-EU mobility has also had a positive impact. Contrary to fears that enlargement would trigger a mass wave of Eastern Europeans emigrating West and jobs moving East, workers from the new EU countries in fact helped ease labour shortages while contributing to economic growth in receiving countries.
In short, enlargement has helped expand the borders of the EU’s highly-integrated internal market that today has more than 500 million consumers. It has fully liberalized the labour market, although that was done over a transition period. It has kept state protectionism at bay. It has helped enrich the EU’s cultural diversity and has created new regional co-operation initiatives and advanced multilateralism.
Naturally, challenges did arise along the way. Making the transition to a single market, reforming institutions and accommodating cultural and linguistic differences has certainly not been an easy task.
Accession is indeed a long, complex process, a balancing act with the absolute aim to create a level playing field among all members. It requires goodwill, commitment and direct engagement from all concerned: citizens, civil society groups, national authorities and EU institutions.
May 2014, the 10th anniversary of the 2004 enlargement, is also a good time to ponder the future. The EU has created a unique model of society many European nations aspire to join. Countries are lining up to join the EU, despite the talk of “enlargement fatigue.” The EU’s doors remain open for European countries committed to its agenda.
In 2013, the EU welcomed Croatia, its newest member, continuing a trend that will contribute to the consolidation of stability and prosperity in the entire western Balkans, a region that not so long ago was torn by conflict.
Negotiations for Serbia’s accession began in January 2014, while accession negotiations with Montenegro have been under way since 2012. The Commission has recommended since 2009 that accession negotiations be opened with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Negotiations are ongoing with Turkey, while in Iceland, at the time of writing, a political debate is under way on the direction the country should take with regard to its EU membership application.
Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates. Countries aspire to join the EU because they know membership means peace and stability. They know membership will help them recover from recent conflicts in the region and consolidate the rule of law. They know it creates a win-win situation for the current and future member states and allows them to join the largest single market in the world.
The accession perspective provides strong encouragement for transformation, for political and economic reform in the acceding countries. Reforms in the area of the rule of law, including judicial reform, and the fight against corruption and organized crime benefit the countries concerned and the European Union as a whole. These reforms reinforce peace, stability and democracy in Europe and save the EU money that would otherwise have to be spent on crisis prevention, reinforced border controls and combating illegal immigration.
Next month, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2004 enlargement, I am more convinced than ever that enlargement is one of Europe’s greatest achievements.

Marie-Anne Coninsx is the European Union ambassador to Canada.

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Marie-Anne Coninsx is the European Union ambassador to Canada.

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