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24th Mar 2019

EU still 'digesting' 2004 enlargement five years on

  • 1 May 2004 - celebrations in Brussels on the occasion of the EU's enlargement by 10 new member states (Photo: European Commission)

On 1 May 2004 the EU marked its biggest ever enlargement, accepting 10 new countries and bringing the number of member states to 25. Five years later, both "old" and "new" member states are still "digesting" the move, experts say, while prospects for future expansion look increasingly grim.

The 10 new member states – Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Cyprus and Malta – brought 73 million people to the union and moved its borders considerably further east.

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The European Commission says that the accession of these countries, most of them formerly part of the Eastern Bloc, has been an unquestionable success.

"EU enlargement has served as an anchor of stability and democracy and as a driver of personal freedom and economic dynamism in Europe," EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said during a speech in Berlin earlier this week.

In February, the commission published a report stressing the economic benefits enlargement brought to both old and new member states and saying that trade between them almost tripled in less than 10 years.

The bloc's executive has also encouraged old member states to scrap remaining restrictions to workers from the new countries insisting that "migration flows following the 2004 and 2007 enlargements have had positive economic effects in those countries which did not restrict free movement of workers."

On Friday (1 May) Denmark and Belgium lifted those restrictions, with Copenhagen also doing so for workers from Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the bloc on 1 January 2007.

This left only Germany and Austria with barriers in place for the so-called EU-8 countries (workers from Cyprus and Malta have been exempted from the restrictions). By contrast, most old member states still have restrictions for Bulgarians and Romanians.

Institutional machinery works

The biggest enlargement in the EU's history also brought institutional changes, swelling the size of the three main EU bodies - the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council (the secretariat of EU member states).

This has not damaged the decision-making process, as some had expected, says Sara Hagemann, an EU institutional affairs analyst with the Brussels-based European Policy Centre (EPC) think-tank.

"The decision processes [in all EU institutions] ...have not slowed down. There has not been a deadlock in the system, as some observers had predicted," she told EUobserver.

"The numbers of legislation adopted each year have actually, compared to the last few years, increased. So, one can say that the machinery is working and performing and meeting the demand for policy-making."

In terms of policy making, there has been no clear division between old and new, as neither group is a coherent entity. But some areas, especially where unanimity is required – such as justice and home affairs – have suffered as a consequence of the increase, according to Ms Hagemann.

"Research has shown that the numbers are low in terms of how much and how detailed legislation is provided from the EU level compared to what could be expected," in the justice field, she said, arguing that the Lisbon Treaty is a much needed tool for improving the new model bloc's functioning.

"It is not [simply] a political statement that the Lisbon Treaty has to go through."

Wanted: 'centre of gravity'

The last five years have changed the EU's political identity however, analysts argue.

"It's an EU of 27 member states, the dynamics are completely different," said EU affairs analyst Piotr Kaczynski from the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) think-tank.

The so-called Franco-German engine of the old EU setup is no longer "the centre of gravity" in the 27-nation bloc, he explained.

"Most of the questions between [German chancellor] Merkel and [French president] Sarkozy are now between France and Germany ...They are primarily Franco-German topics," Mr Kaczynski told this website.

"The centre of gravity has moved and we are looking for it ...This means that we have an inflation of summits – micro-summits, different groups meeting in different forms and different formulas, there are lots of government to government meetings. We have really multiplied levels of governance."

A report released earlier this week by the Open Society Institute-Sofia think-tank to which Mr Kaczynski also contributed, said that the EU agenda would look rather different from what it does today if the "new" member states were setting it alone.

The report, called Not Your Grandfather's Eastern Bloc, argues that EU expansion and economic liberalisation would be pushed further if the "new" states were the agenda-setters.

"If these countries had more clout, Europe would adopt Lisbon Treaty and grant membership to Croatia and Serbia in a matter of months, consider membership for Ukraine and Moldova, pursue more robust economic liberalisation, and take a 'Nato-first' approach toward European defence and security," it says.

"Despite the economic crisis, these countries would keep state protectionism at bay and fully liberalise labor markets."

Still digesting

The EU has not yet reached the point where the new member states can be the agenda-setters, however, both because those countries' governments are still too focused domestically and because the bloc has not yet finished "digesting" the big-bang enlargement, Mr Kaczynski says.

In this context, enthusiasm for further enlargement has cooled in several European capitals. The Lisbon treaty deadlock and the economic crisis have exasperated this trend.

And while enlargement to candidate and potential candidate countries from the western Balkans is still seen just as a matter of time, expansion beyond, to countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia or even to EU candidate Turkey, is seen at the moment as unlikely in the foreseeable future.

"That [further enlargement] can only happen when digestion [of the latest enlargement] is over. When there is no long a question in the Eurobarometer 'how do you perceive the 2004 enlargement,' with the majority of western Europeans saying 'bad' and the majority of eastern Europeans saying 'good'," Mr Kaczynski said, referring to the EU's regular opinion poll service.

"As long as this is relevant, it means that digestion is not over. So, only when it's over, can you consider Ukraine and Georgia."

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