Completing the reunification of Europe

Completing the reunification of Europe

2006. 12. 14.

The historic 2004 EU enlargement represents a process that has reunified a Europe that was divided for half a century by the Iron Curtain and the Cold War.  On balance, the EU has coped well with this process. Both the prospect and the process of accession helped to transform the new EU Member States into liberal economies and pluralist democracies as they finally gained their freedom following the oppression of communism.

Although this was the largest accession round in terms of the number of countries joining the EU, the previous waves of enlargement had already altered the nature of the Community.  The accession of Denmark, Ireland and the UK represented a larger population gain in proportion to the original size than the 2004 enlargement did.  Likewise, the Mediterranean accessions of the 1980s (Greece, Portugal and Spain) brought for the first time countries with much lower income levels and fragile democracies into what had hitherto been a relatively homogenous club.

The history of the EU shows that the process of enlargement has been an integral part of its institutional development over the last fifty years. Successive rounds of enlargement have been accompanied by further steps towards policy co-operation and integration: widening and deepening have proceeded in parallel. However before the 2004 enlargement, there were widespread fears that the large increase in the number of EU Member States would lead to gridlock in EU decision-making processes. For some, such fears were exacerbated by the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in mid-2005. Yet these fears did not materialise. The growth in the number of Member States, however, may yet reinforce a broader trend in the EU towards ‘variable geometry’, where smaller groups of Member States agree to pursue or implement a policy without seeking to get all the others on board. 

We meet often as well that many in the “old” EU Member States feel that the EU has not yet absorbed successfully the 2004 enlargement and that the addition of the Central and Eastern European countries has changed the nature of the EU.  There are fears that one consequence of adding between forty and fifty million low-cost workers to the EU’s single market will be to lower wages in the EU-15.  These concerns about the future functioning of the Union and the impact of low-cost competition on labour markets are understandable.  But there is a sharp contrast between public perceptions (and some political rhetoric) about the impact of the last enlargement and the assessment by most experts.

What is the balance of enlargement for the new Member States?

To prepare for EU accession, the new Member States took over the EU’s single market acquis leading to rapid improvements in their business environments.  But it did entail the very painful restructuring of several economic sectors.

However, citizens there feel disappointed on seeing the actual benefits of enlargement.  Many also feel that the whole accession process took far too long. Many people in these countries resent being treated as ‘second class citizens’ by receiving lower levels of financial support to their States in comparison to old Member States in policy areas such as agriculture or structural funds and with the recent developments in EU policy-making, when their interests are not taken on board.

As for the CAP, the new Member States received only 25 per cent of the direct payments in 2004.  These will only be gradually increased up to 100 per cent by 2013 – when the whole CAP will be reviewed again and the payments generally expected to be reduced.

The overall allocation for structural actions for the new Member has been lower than hoped for.  The reason for such a low budget was explained by expected problems with the absorption capacity of structural funds for the new Member States.

Free movement of labour is still in fact extensively restricted across the EU.  The so-called transition periods were mainly the result of fears relating to the immigration of workers ahead of enlargement and negative public reactions in its aftermath.  Most EU countries decided to apply the transition periods, with only Ireland, Sweden and the UK keeping their labour markets open. In twelve of the EU-15 countries, work permits are still required and there are strict quotas for Central and Eastern European immigrants – covering either the whole economy or individual sectors.  Only from 2011 will the free movement of labour be applied to the ten new Member States that joined in 2004.

However the new members tend to support taking harder steps needed to complete the Single Market. For example, they have called for all EU countries to uphold the principle of the free movement of labour and most supported the adoption of a more ambitious draft of the Services Directive. By March 2006, the new members had transposed 99 per cent of all EU directives into national law.

We can conclude that the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries was not only in their own political and economic interests, but it was also in the interests of the European Union and its Member States. Almost all policy-makers, commentators, economists and academics across Europe agree that the 2004 enlargement has been a success.  It represents one of the EU’s greatest achievements, both in terms of underpinning democracy and stability across the European continent and in increasing the prosperity for all Europe’s citizens.  We have always sought to ensure as well that enlargement does not paralyse the workings of the European Institutions -particularly with regard to decision-making – or endanger the strengthening of European integration. 

Despite of the success of the recent enlargement, the process itself is not yet completed.  Integration of new Member States into EU polices will take time.  Although the present functioning of the EU has proved to be sufficient, new Member States are expected to take more charge of EU issues important to them.  This can trigger some unexpected conflicts in the Union. The lack of information on the benefits of EU enlargement since 2004, and real division lines have generated a significant fear of the new Member States in the ‘old’ EU-15 countries and low confidence in one another. To achieve the new EU policy goals set out for the next decade needs to be rebuilt. Better growth, more jobs and better social protection for our citizens cannot be pursued within a divided Europe. There is still much to be done to complete the reunification of Europe.


József Szájer (MEP)