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


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.

With Europe continuing to nurse desperately high unemployment rates and anaemic growth levels, despite the easing of the euro zone crisis, the economic case for enlargement has weakened. Much of the public anger towards governments and bankers in recent years is now turning to migrants, fuelled by anti-immigration parties such as UKIP in Britain, the Dutch Freedom Party and the National Front in France.

Even countries that joined the European Union after 2004, such as Bulgaria and Romania which acceded in 2007, complain it is not yielding the economic benefits enjoyed by their neighbours, though critics say it is the failure of countries to adhere to the economic, social and legal responsibilities required by the EU that is the issue.

But despite the current questioning of the enlargement process and the recurrent debate over whether accession has reached its limits, the current crisis in Ukraine has served to highlight the strength of the European project.

The European Union’s role in the Ukraine crisis may be questionable – many have criticised Brussels for offering Kiev a promise of closer links without the pledge of full membership, while others have cited the EU’s naivety in dealing with Victor Yanucovych – but the sight of thousands of people protesting for the right to closer links with the EU is testimony to the power of the European ideal.

Similarly, the EU’s ongoing discussions with countries in former Yugoslavia about EU membership indicates the crucial role the European Union continues to play in peace and conflict resolution.

Last July, 20 years after the Balkan Peninsula was savaged by ethnic war and devastation, Croatia became the 28th country to join the European Union. Discussions with Serbia and preliminary talks with Kosovo, began earlier this year following a breakthrough agreement between Serbia and its former breakaway province brokered by the EU.

The government in Belgrade has now begun the slow process of economic, social and governmental reform required by the EU accession process, in a bid to join the European Union by 2020.

The fact that the promise of EU membership can incentivise countries to implement progressive changes, including a commitment to pursue peace and reconciliation, remains one of the strongest arguments for EU enlargement, whatever the economic reasoning. In the centenary year of the first World War, that reminder of one of the founding doctrines of the European Union, is more timely than ever.

The growing EU: who's next?

On July 1st last year Croatia became the 28th country to join the EU, after six years of negotiations. So who’s next in line? There are five official candidates for EU membership, though the EU is also pursuing “association agreements” with the so-called “Eastern Partnership” countries such as Georgia, Moldova and, most contentiously, Ukraine. Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania have been identified as potential candidates.


Began accession negotiations with EU this year, following 2013 commitment to “normalise relations” with Kosovo in an EU-brokered agreement. Like all candidate states, Serbia must enact 35 “chapters” covering taxation, the judicial system, food safety and agriculture, to bring its laws into line with EU laws and standards. Serbia aims to join the bloc by 2020 .

Applied in March 2004 for EU membership . Negotiations trundling on since, with the an association agreement and visa liberalisation arrangements with the EU agreed. Discussions are now stalled amid concern about Macedonia’s democratic processes and commitment to media freedom, as well as political tensions with Greece.

Applied for EU membership in 2008 after split with Serbia. Since talks began in June 2012, seven of the 35 negotiation chapters were opened; two are provisionally comple te. Despite slow progress, Montenegro is seen as more stable than some other former-Yugoslavian states .

Applied to join the then EEC in 1987 and 10 years later was declared eligible to join the now EU. Negotiations began in 2005 but stalled, due to ongoing tensions over Cyprus. Nato memberTurkey is seen as an important Western ally but some EU states, including Germany, continue to oppose its membership. Renewed concerns over rule of law, freedom of speech and human rights make its prospect of membership remote .

Has cooled on the idea of joining the EU, having applied in July 2009 in midst of financial crisis. In May 2013, its government pulled out of talks, despite having opened discussions on 27 of the negotiating chapters and provisionally closing 11. A decision to withdraw its bid without a referendum, sparked protests in the streets of Reykjavik but the country is already closely integrated with the EU as member of the European Economic Area, with Norway and Lichtenstein.

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