Progressive expansion: The right price for joining the EU

The benefits of joining the European Union are such that countries are prepared to instigate the economic, social and political reforms needed

United: Bertie Ahern hugs Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller at  the Day of Welcomes flag-raising ceremony. At left is Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel of Austria and at right is Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

United: Bertie Ahern hugs Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller at the Day of Welcomes flag-raising ceremony. At left is Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel of Austria and at right is Prime Minister Jean Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00

Ten years ago this week, the sun shone down on the ancient walls of Farmleigh House in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, as heads of state, political leaders and the world’s media descended on Dublin to mark the accession of 10 new member states to the European Union.

The occasion – which coincided with Ireland’s sixth presidency of the Council of the European Union – marked a decisive moment in the history of Europe, and a re-focusing of the European balance of power towards the east.

Just 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the accession of 10 states, eight of which were from central and Eastern Europe, was hugely symbolic, with many hailing the process as nothing less than the reunification of a continent that had been ravaged by two World Wars.

But even then the debate about the economic, social and political ramifications of EU enlargement was fraught.

Ten years on from the EU’s single biggest wave of expansion, what has been its impact on the bloc?

Certainly for the 10 countries that joined the European Union in 2004 the experience has been beneficial. Just as with Ireland 30 years previously, EU membership and access to the single market raised GDP (gross domestic product) in the new member states, improved infrastructure and investment, and obliged the acceding countries to adhere to new standards in areas such as gender equality, labour rights and law and order. But the single most tangible impact on both “new” and “old” member states was migration. The 2004 enlargement process triggered a massive wave of east-west migration, as hundreds of thousands of people took advantage of the freedom-
of-movement rules, enshrined in the EU treaty. The decision by most member states to impose transitional measures on inward migration, pushed many new EU citizens towards the three countries which opened their labour markets immediately – Ireland, the UK and Sweden, with Ireland and Britain’s status as English-speaking countries offering an extra enticement.

Countries such as Germany and Italy, which had traditionally absorbed immigrants, were replaced by Ireland and the UK as countries of choice for workers from former Eastern bloc countries including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia.

A decade later, debates about immigration, free movement of workers and the single market have resurfaced ahead of next month’s European elections, where immigration is expected to feature as a key issue in countries across the EU.

While the 2004 wave of enlargement was buoyed by a nascent economic boom, with the supply of cheap, accessible labour feeding the roaring economies of countries such as Britain and Ireland, the economic climate has changed dramatically.

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