The EU celebrates 20 years of its largest enlargement with new candidates

The EU celebrates 20 years of its largest enlargement with new candidates
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“Today is the largest enlargement in the history of the European Union and it will not be the last.” This is how the president of the European Commission in 2004, the Italian Romano Prodi, welcomed ten new members to the community club. With the welcome of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Sloveniathe EU not only went from 15 to 25 States, but also made clear the extension of the European model after the fall of the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’, which symbolically separated the Eastern countries with Soviet influence from the rest of the world during the Cold War. European neighbors.

Prodi’s words were, in a way, prophetic. After her came Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. But she has not stopped there. This Wednesday, when 20 years have passed since the largest expansion to the east, the European Union finds itself once again at a similar crossroads. Seven new countries, also mostly former Soviet republics, are candidates to join the Twenty-seven: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia and Ukraine. The latter has been at war with Russia for more than two years.

“For Europe to win the future, just as it did 20 years ago, Ukraine must win. This country has made its European choice and we have made our Ukrainian choice. Just as we did so many years ago, when we welcomed so many countries into our Union” , pointed out the president of the Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, at an event celebrating the anniversary of the 2004 enlargement, slipping a certain parallel between both enlargements.

However, some sectors call not to also forget the “diverse” situations in which the candidates find themselves and the “complexity” of the current context. “Clearly there are big differences, more small and fragile states in the Western Balkans with the unresolved conflict between Serbia and Kosovo, and the enormous and alarming case of Ukraine: an ongoing war with an unknown end and consequences, enormous demographic damage, etc. ),” explains the researcher at the Center for European Policy Studies (CEPS) to RTVE.es. Michael Emerson.

Added to all this is another problem: the debate on the reform of the institutions themselves —which has sometimes been blocked by the veto of a few countries—to become the community house of no less than 34 members, with different aspirations and cultures. “Joining the EU is not just sending a message, it is also a political, economic and social transformation of such magnitude that we should not do it hastily and that requires revisions of the institutions,” considers the professor of International Law at the University of Granada. , Javier Roldán.

From Brussels, the socialist MEP, Ignacio Sánchez Amor, affirms that the successive enlargements “demonstrate that the project continues to be attractive for many societies.” While the MEP and general secretary of the European PP, Antonio López-Istúriz, considers that the integration “was a success like all those carried out, in the face of the doomsayers who announced the destruction of the European Union” and encourages “maintaining solidarity “when new members are included, “in the same way they did with us.”

Success and lessons learned from an expansion

The arrival of new members It was like a “big bang” for the European Union, due to the economic and social differences in many of them, indicates the director of the Institute of European Studies at the University of Valladolid, Francisco Fonseca, who emphasizes that the expansion has also been an “economic success.” “We must understand the enlargement of 20 years ago as something geostrategic, as a reparation to those countries that could not benefit because they were left within the Iron Curtain,” he considers what he defines as a struggle with Russia to gain greater influence in the area. “If access to some of those countries had been restricted at that time, the risk of instability would have been greater, as we are seeing on the eastern border with Ukraine,” he adds.

The economic data broadly confirms the economic evolution. According to figures from the World Bank, expressed in billions of dollars, countries like Poland have doubled their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 344.63 in 2006 to 688 in 2022. In the Czech Republic, it has gone from more than 156 to 290 and in Hungary, from 115 to 177 in the same time frame. It is worth mentioning that the growth has not been constant, since all of them, to a lesser or greater extent, have been affected by economic crises, between 2008 and 2012, as well as the stoppage of the COVID-19 pandemic, in 2020.

The same has happened with the European spirit, which has suffered some ups and downs in recent years. According to the Eurobarometer (2007-2023), the view of these EU countries as “positive” at the beginning ranged from 36% in Latvia, being the lowest, to 64% in Poland, the highest. In the last year, it has ranked between 31% in the Czech Republic, the lowest percentage among the ten countries that entered, to 58% in Lithuania. Over time, popularity levels have remained generally low around the economic crisis of 2012, the migration situation in 2018 (especially in Malta and Cyprus) and have had a sharp positive rebound during the pandemic and also after the war in Ukraine, in 2021, seen clearly in the Baltic countries.

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In Hungary, which has maintained a frequent tug-of-warIn 2007, EU acceptance was at 41%, but it has changed until it is currently back to the same figure. This country, along with Poland, has been one of those that has received several important warnings from the EU. In the Polish case, due to the justice reform of the ultra-conservative government, which is currently being reversed by the arrival to power of Donald Tusk; and in Hungary, due to the EU’s rejection of regulations such as the law against the LGBTIQ+ community, which ended with the blocking of community funds. This situation was used by its president, Víktor Orbán, close to the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, as bargaining chip to not block European support for Ukraine which, on various issues, required the unanimous vote of the countries.

“The hard lesson learned is that the EU’s existing mechanisms to deal with retrograde political behavior are not strong enough and without solutions the next enlargements will not happen,” says Michael Emerson. Roldán also expresses himself along these lines: “When they are candidates, they promise and swear eternal love for the values ​​of the Union. But, once inside, it is more difficult to manage, because they cannot be threatened with expulsion or punished forcefully.”

For Sánchez Amor, of the PSOE, the experience “will serve as a vaccine” so that “we are very aware that enlargements cannot be hasty” and that “countries have to enter truly prepared.” From the European PP, López-Istúriz believes that these circumstances should not stop “future enlargements, as long as the countries comply with the requirements.”

Road to 2030: divisions on how to transform institutions

This right to veto is, precisely, one of the open debates in the pro-European atmosphere regarding a possible enlargement. “The EU will have to find a solution to the ‘Orbán-type veto’ problem. I see three alternatives: temporary exclusion of the veto power; an improved Article 7 – which suspends the right to vote if agreed unanimously – of the Treaty on European Union or a new category of Associate Member pending “EU deepening” reforms, says Michael Emerson, which emphasizes that “no official proposal has yet been made, only in reflection circles.”

If an agreement is not reached, Roldán points out, “a minority could form within the European Union that would block and delay many reforms” and he gives the example of a union between Hungary and Serbia, with a government also close to Putin. “A European Union of thirty members could be much less united, there will be various speeds, especially at the beginning, and European values ​​will undoubtedly suffer,” says the professor.

But The transformations go beyond the institution itself and could reach far-reaching policies.. “There are policies that are going to change completely from the roots, such as, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Ukraine is among the largest cereal producers, which can generate tensions with other countries,” says Fonseca. Also in the distribution of funds or aid. “You cannot strip Spain, Portugal, Greece, to clothe others. And this means doing a big review and starting with very strict rules about obligations in the club,” adds the director of the Institute of European Studies at the University of Valladolid.

About accession criteria, the MEPs of the PP and PSOE consider that they should be “the same for everyone.” “There are no shortcuts,” defends Ignacio Sánchez Amor forcefully. “They must be equal and fulfilled,” asserts Antonio López-Istúriz. They also agree that it is difficult to establish a date for enlargement, despite the fact that the president of the European Council, Charles Michael, targeted 2030.

“Let’s not set temporary dates. It can serve to give a message of hope to the countries, but this is about passing the exams that the candidates undergo now,” says Sánchez Amor. “The entry of these countries is necessary in the middle term”, but setting dates is “risky”, says López-Istúriz, who recognizes that “there is still more debate to be done” and that this will also be transferred to Spanish society.

For Michael Emerson, this will clashes, however, with an international scene in constant change. “In principle, the EU says that the criteria do not change, but at the same time the rhetoric revolves around the new geopolitical imperative, which implies more realpolitik (regardless of ideologies) and fewer democratic values. The outcome of this contradiction is still unclear. Everything is still to be decided on the common European home,” she concludes.

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