The countries that joined the European Union 15 years ago have come a long way. They now know how the EU functions — and how to defend their interests, writes German journalist Boris Kalnoky.
On May 1, 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and Malta joined the European Union.
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The EU grew from 15 states to 25 — the bloc's population was suddenly 20% larger than before. The mood was upbeat, and it seemed clear that if the new member states were to follow the lead of the existing members, their economic fortunes would soon align, too. And many of those countries were soon on a relative par with the longer-term member states.
With the global financial meltdown of 2009, however, the European Union's economic inequality widened once more. People in many of the new member states experienced stagnation rather than economic miracles.
Instead of the widespread prosperity promised, "European integration” had once again worked to the benefit of a small group of economic elite: Everyone else experienced existential insecurity.
Prices rose, but incomes remained low. Employment insecurity was rife, and two incomes were often not enough to support a family of four.
The countries that had been aligned with the Eastern bloc had transitioned from the relative stability of Soviet-style communism to economic precariousness. Disillusionment followed the enthusiasm that had come with joining the European Union.
Skepticism grew in the new member states. The voters brought governments to power that opposed the dictates of the older members. States intervened more in their economies. They imposed new taxes on companies with headquarters in older EU members.
The Visegrad states — the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland — joined forces to collectively defend their mutual interests within the framework of the European Union. New ideas from older member states were viewed with skepticism and in some cases rejected. The Visegrad countries did not adopt the welcome attitude toward displaced people that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had advocated, for example, and they imposed further increasing the power of European Commission over member states. However, they supported the notion of an EU army, as well as austerity policies in many cases.
Safety in numbers
The new member states coordinated their efforts to strengthen each other's economies rather than continue to look to the EU establishment for guidance or an example. Since 2012, gross national income has grown across the Visegrad states. Individual earnings finally rose on average again, too — in some cases rapidly. The new members had learned how to skillfully operate within the framework of the European Union, as well as to forge coalitions in order to best promote their own interests.
Press and politicians in the longer-term EU states often focus more on moralizing and the authoritarian and undemocratic governments that have taken power in the newer members and miss the stories of these countries' success. Nowhere in the bloc, however, is there greater overall support for the EU — nowhere do fewer citizens want their countries to exit than in the newer member states. Whatever the European Union's crisis of confidence is, it's not occurring in these countries.
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Informed by the bitterest histories of Europe, the people of the new member states are realists. They understand how the EU really works, and they know how to stand tall and hold their own in order not to lose their identities. They are self-confidently helping to shape the discourse of the European Union: They have a voice, and they raise it. As a result, there is more conflict. But dispute is a tried-and-tested means of finding solutions.