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Experts call EU expansion historic success

On May 1, 2004, Europe celebrated the enlargement of the EU. Five years later, many Europeans don't feel much like commemorating the historic occasion, even though there are still plenty of reasons to celebrate.


Celebration in Prague five years ago

The economic data are convincing. According to figures just released by the German statistical bureau (Destatis), the economic output of the ten new member states has grown drastically since they joined the EU five years ago.

The inflation-adjusted gross domestic product (GDP) of the new members increased by 23 percent until 2008 when compared to 2004, the year they entered the EU. Slovakia, whose GDP grew by 36 percent topped the list, followed by Lithuania and Latvia whose output rose by more than 30 percent respectively. Even Hungary's economy, which experienced the weakest increase of all new member states with only ten percent, grew significantly faster than the economies of the 15 older member states which registered eight percent.

The strong economic performance by the new members is not the sole consequence of EU membership. Most Eastern European countries had begun to drastically reform and remodel their economies after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and had recorded strong GDP growth long before joining the EU.

So while EU membership wasn't the decisive factor, becoming part of the large European market was a definite boost for the new members. It not only enabled the new countries to sell their products across Europe without any hurdles. It also forced them to adapt their production and quality standards to compete on the international market.

Obviously, the global economic meltdown hasn't spared the new member states. Growth rates have slowed in many countries; some states, such as Hungary, face severe difficulties. Still, when judged by economic standards, the EU expansion is a success.

Downbeat perception of enlargement

Polnischer Grenzpfahl an der Grenze zu Deutschland

Symbol of the past: border post between Germany and Poland

Then why do the feelings of many Europeans towards the expansion range somewhere between lukewarm and negative? In the latest Eurobarometer poll, a regular Europe-wide survey measuring public opinion toward the EU, less than half (48 percent) of the participants felt that the expansion made the EU stronger. 36 percent believe that the expansion weakened the bloc. In some countries, among them Germany and France, a majority of those polled holds the view that enlargement weakened the EU.

"I am quite puzzled by these polls," admits Petr Drulak, Director of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, "but I think it reflects a general feeling about the EU as a whole. Many people are simply tired of the EU and don't like any news that comes out of Brussels, even if there are no objective and tangible reasons for it." Drulak argues that the most dominant fear of EU enlargement in Germany and other countries simply didn't materialize. "The flooding of the German labor market with Eastern European workers never happened because Germany protected its labor market." And even a country with an unprotected labor market such as Britain, says Drulak, managed to integrate the workers from Eastern Europe quite well until the global economic meltdown started to take effect.

Jonas Cicinskas, Head of the European Studies Department at Vilnius University in Lithuania, blames the deteriorating economic situation for the negative public opinion toward enlargement. Cicinskas believes that the global economic crisis currently overshadows everything and negatively influences how people judge the EU and enlargement. "Many people in the traditional EU donor countries understandably are not in favor of paying money for poorer countries and supporting sectors such as agriculture."

Proof that EU is a viable project

Despite the trend towards EU scepticism both Drulak and Cicinskas consider the enlargement of the EU a tremendous achievement. "I think it is one of the great successes of the European Union," says Drulak . "If I had to give a grade I would give it not just a 'very good,' but an 'excellent.' It proved that the EU can absorb many new members and remain a viable project."

Den Tisch gedeckt für die EU

Factory in Budapest producing EU flags

The experts also agree that the division between old and new members becomes increasingly irrelevant. Drulak contends that there is not a single political issue where the alleged Old Europe-New Europe divide is still in place today. "Even on Russia, this dividing line doesn't work anymore," he says. "While Poland and the Baltic states, with some support by the Scandinavian countries, are tough on Russia, Hungary and Slovakia tend more towards the more lenient German position on Russia."

And Cicinskas points out that, economically, the differences between the new countries are growing as well. He predicts that in the future, sub-regional factors will play a more important role than when a country joined the EU.

EU should remain open for new members

As for the never-ending debate about further enlargement, Drulak and Cicinskas, not surprisingly, are clearly in favor of other nations joining the EU. "Ideally, every European country should be a member of the EU," says Cicinskas. "But we need to calculate more carefully if we can afford new members financially and we have to reconsider the current regional and structural funds of the EU."

On a global scale, the EU is still a small player when compared to the US or future powers, such as China and India, argues Drulak. "Its openness for new members will make it stronger in the long term. If a country has the commitment to get through the very difficult and long accession process, then it should be able to become a member of the EU."

Author: Michael Knigge

Editor: Susan Houlton

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