Now that the celebrations are underway, it's easy to forget how difficult the process of enlargement has often been. Not only the 10 new members have been forced to adapt, the EU itself has had to change.
Adding 10 new stars to Europe
Since the EU summit in Copenhagen in December 2002, one thing has been clear: 10 new members would cross the threshold to the European Union on May 1, 2004.
"To our new members I say: 'Warmly welcome to our family. Our new Europe is born." Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen was visibly proud when he announced the historic breakthrough more than two years ago and officially extended the invitation to the 10 states to join the then 15.
"We have finally closed the bloody chapters of the Cold War and two world wars devastating Europe and its people. We have replaced them with a clear and common vision of an integrated Europe."
A lengthy process
But the road to enlargement was a lengthy one. It started almost 10 years earlier, also under a Danish presidency, when the EU laid out the foundations for what was to become the biggest expansion in its history. In 1993 member states formulated the so-called Copenhagen criteria according to which candidates would have to fulfill certain political and economic standards before they could be admitted to the bloc. The door was opened to all those who meet the criteria, including such fundamental basics as stability, democracy, the rule of law and the establishment of competitive market economies.
At the time, Brussels had already signed agreements with Hungary, Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, which guaranteed them future entrance into the EU. In 1993, the bloc agreed to association treaties with Romania and Bulgaria. The Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, entered negotiations in 1995; and Slovenia began the admission process in 1996.
While the eastern European countries began shaking off the yoke of communism, the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus entered into enlargement talks and were quickly given official candidate status. By the late 1990s Turkey had also entered the picture, but Ankara's wish to be included in the list of candidates was postponed.
The question of how to incorporate the candidate countries quickly became one of logistical importance. Should the countries be divided into groups and given different deadlines, or is it better to begin the accession process with all of them at the same time? In 1998 it was decided that the EU enter into negotiations with all 12 candidates at the same time -- only Turkey was left out.
By then it had become readily apparent that such an invitation also required that the EU itself change. What worked in terms of decision making for 15 countries would become nearly impossible with 25. The principle of unanimity, for example, was no longer applicable. If each country were to continue to exercise its veto right on practically every ministerial decision, the EU would be paralyzed. On the financial level, the issue of farm subsidies had to be re-examined. Since most of the candidate countries have a large agricultural sector, Brussels could not afford to continue paying out subsidies to the same extent it had with older members.
Such internal reforms proved to be a long and agonizing process. The first attempt to get the EU in shape for the expansion process was in 1997 at the EU summit in Berlin. There, the 15 member states approved the strategy "Agenda 2000." It became the working foundation for the watershed summit in Nice three years later.
In June 2000, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder summed up the aspirations of the bloc when he said, "The current 15 members will be ready for accession in 2002, beginning of 2003. It is a duty we have taken upon ourselves and we must achieve it in Nice."
The summit in southern France, however, turned into a conflict-plagued marathon session. Although most of the reforms could be agreed to, such as the decision to open up several areas to a simple majority vote, other points still proved quite sticky. It wasn't until late 2002, for instance, that government leaders devised a plan for farm subsidies, which capped the benefits and permitted candidate countries to receive the full amount of subsidies only in incremental steps.
In many regards, though, even these issues are still not resolved to everyone's satisfaction. The issue of voting continues to be a point of contention in current discussions about the Constitution; and largely agriculture-dependent countries such as Poland are unhappy with the distribution of farm subsidies.
Nonetheless, by the end of 2002 the EU had overcome the last procedural hurdles and was ready to accept new members. At the same time, 10 of the candidate countries had completed their homework to such an extent that Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen recommended admitting them: "These 10 countries deserve to become members. They have succeeded on their own in meeting the incredibly hard and ambitious accession criteria to be admitted in the European Union."
Now just as the current enlargement is being celebrated, the next round of expansion is already being planned. Bulgaria and Romania, who missed joining this year, should be ready to enter the bloc in 2007. After that more countries could follow. The Turkish application is being reassessed later this year, and Ankara hopes it will receive a concrete date for admission talks to begin. And Croatia, a late-comer in the negotiations, has proved to be particularly eager in implementing the Copenhagen criteria.
"In the interest of our children"
Even if the present enlargement is not without critics, the door to the EU will not shut on May 1, 2004. Despite the hostility from many older members towards expanding Europe's borders further east and south, the process will surely continue. In the words German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer: "Our gain in terms of security and economic growth is invaluable. Therefore enlargement is in our interest and in the interest of our children and grandchildren."