1 May marked the fifth anniversary of the EU's biggest ever expansion. Ten countries joined on that historic day in 2004 – Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.
Raising the number of member countries from 15 to 25, the ‘Big Bang’ brought some 73 million more people and nine new official languages into the EU. It also shifted the EU border almost 1 000 kilometres to the east, reunifying Europe after decades of Cold War division.
Two other countries – Romania and Bulgaria – joined in 2007, bringing the total to 27.
Has EU expansion been a success? According to a recent EU report, the answer is an unequivocal yes.
It has brought about huge economic and political benefits for member countries old and new. It has significantly raised living standards in new member countries, spurred modernisation of their economies and created more stable institutions.
Old member countries have gained new investment and export opportunities. The EU as a whole has benefited from increased trade between its members and become more competitive.
The EU’s eastward expansion has also strengthened political stability, democracy and rule of law throughout Europe – including in Balkan countries that aspire to EU membership – and given the EU more weight in tackling global challenges like climate change and the financial crisis.
But the current recession has triggered protectionist tendencies that threaten to undermine that success. “Many Europeans have questions about EU enlargement in the middle of the economic crisis,” enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said in a recent speech. “However, while combating the economic recession, we must not make EU enlargement a scapegoat for it, as it does not deserve that and it is not responsible for our social ills.”
On the contrary, a strong single market is seen as crucial to Europe’s economic recovery. New member countries are urged to continue with reforms to deepen their economic and political integration. Such reforms are essential to helping the EU welcome new members in the future.
At present, three countries – Croatia, Turkey and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – have been officially accepted as candidates for EU membership. Five other western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo – are considered potential candidates.