EU eastern enlargement 20 years on

On 1 May 2004, the European Union gained ten new member states when Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Cyprus joined. What are the results?

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Delo (SI) /

Enemies become neighbours

The European peace project is working, Delo rejoices:

“For a country like Slovenia - small, with a very brief history of statehood, with an open, export-oriented economy and largely unnatural and hard-to-defend borders, surrounded by larger neighbours - the institutional framework of the European Union is in fact the only guarantee of long-term survival. And this is precisely because it is a system that is incompatible with the idea and practice of empires on European soil. It allows us to make the verse of our anthem 'the enemy becomes the neighbour' a banal reality of our daily lives - in a world where this is becoming less and less true all around us.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Fear of the return of nationalism

By integrating the countries of the former eastern bloc the EU wanted to avoid a repetition of a historical phenomenon, writes the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:

“Why did the EU take this big step? The short answer is: for security reasons. Of course, the interest in the economic integration of an area that had previously been part of the Soviet Union's economic sphere played an important role. But there was also the justified fear that nationalism in Eastern Europe would lead to conflicts between and within the states that had become independent (as in the period between the two world wars). Anyone who thought this concern was exaggerated was proved wrong by the Yugoslav wars of disintegration (1991-1999).”

Hospodářské noviny (CZ) /

Where would the Czech Republic be without the EU?

It's enough to think back to the time before EU accession to realise just how important this step was, Hospodářské noviny recalls:

“We remember how the tax authorities, the courts and the competition authority operated back then. ... The shift in the business environment and in the functioning of public offices has been enormous, regardless of which details we, personally, like or dislike. The idea that none of this might have happened, that there would be no European bureaucrats here, but only our own, searching for their own paths through trial and error, is frightening. ... And what's more, these paths would certainly have led somewhere far to the east.”

Eesti Päevaleht (EE) /

Continue to grow - but reduce veto rights

The EU must pursue its enlargement policy while limiting sovereignty in certain domains, Eesti Päevaleht insists:

“It's in the interests of Europe's security to open up genuine accession prospects for our neighbours once more. For this change of heart to be taken seriously, the EU must also adapt internally. There must be far fewer areas in which the veto of one country prevents the progress of all. A further renunciation of sovereignty may seem frightening at first glance, but it is in Estonia's interests. Only a flexible and effective EU (together with Nato) can ensure the survival of our country with the greatest possible security.”

LRT (LT) /

Mobility instead of walls

For Rimvydas Petrauskas, Rector of Vilnius University, free travel through Europe is the biggest achievement of the eastward enlargement. He writes on LRT:

“When I travelled to Germany by bus on a field trip 30 years ago and stood in agonisingly long queues at the Polish and German border, I had no idea how much our lives would change within a relatively short space of time. The wall had become a metaphor for our generation and collapsed gradually over the decades of independence. This freeing up of space and opening up to unhindered mobility and exchange of ideas is in itself a victory for the European Union.” (PL) /

Idea of sovereign nation lost in this union

Today's EU has lost contact with its roots, says news website, which has close links to the PiS:

“The level of infantilism evident in the hurrah-optimistic praise for today's EU is striking. There is no room for critical reflection or a vision of how a real Europe of homelands should be organised. This formulation alone elicits major reservations among the EU's supporters. Even more offensive to them is the invocation of the idea that inspired the founders of the Coal and Steel Community. For the vision pursued by Robert Schuman stemmed from his deep faith, the philosophy of the Christian view of humanity that emphasised respect for human dignity, democracy and human rights. Schuman strongly emphasised the sovereignty of nation states and their independent development, with the goal of forming a community of homelands.”

hvg (HU) /

Orbán is holding Hungary back

Hungary could benefit even more from EU membership without its Eurosceptic leadership, says Hvg:

“Everything the Hungarian leader [Viktor Orbán] does is aimed at securing as much funding as possible from the EU - without letting anyone have a say in how this money is used or directed to his clientele. This is why our EU funds have not been used very effectively on the basis of a regional comparison. Although the GDP and wages have risen significantly, the missed opportunities are clearly visible in comparison with other members that joined in 2004 and later. This is most evident in the data on living standards, where all EU countries with the exception of Bulgaria are now ahead of us.”

Kurier (AT) /

Austria has benefited

The eastward expansion of the EU has been a blessing for the Austrian labour market, writes Kurier:

“In addition to the new EU members, Austria in particular has benefited from the eastward expansion, which was initially viewed with great scepticism. Not only because the Austrian banks quickly shifted their focus eastwards and soon occupied the top spot there, but also because the Eastern Europeans stormed onto the Austrian labour market. However, rather than causing a spike in employment in this country, in the medium term they covered a demand for labour that the Austrians themselves could not/would not cover.”

Lidové noviny (CZ) /

Today we are the West

Lidové noviny sums up:

“Measuring the results of these twenty years is in fact surprisingly easy. The great success of Czech EU membership is characterised by everything that has to do with freedom. Specifically, it's about the free movement of people, goods and capital. Nobody misses the former passport controls. Older people may remember that in the early 1990s we had to apply for entry visas before travelling to most Western countries, including neighbouring Germany. Now we ourselves are the West for citizens of Eastern European countries.”

Postimees (EE) /

Stronger together

Estonia benefits from the EU, but the EU also benefits from Estonia, writes Postimees:

“The European Union is now part of our everyday life - many things have been and are being built with EU funds; our schoolchildren, university students and professionals go to Europe to advance their careers and knowledge. ... Over 20 years Estonia has received around 20 billion euros from the EU. An entire generation has grown up within the European Union. Estonia's most notable initiatives in the European Union include building up the digital single market and establishing a European digital identity, strengthening European defence capabilities and, of course, working tirelessly for Ukraine.”

Diena (LV) /

Developing a joint identity

Diena takes stock of the 20 years since Latvia joined the EU:

“We have come a long way since 1 May 2004, and have lost the illusions of a rapid and general increase in the prosperity of Latvian society. We have also lost the illusion that the current affairs of our country are considered in Brussels and Strasbourg as priorities for the EU. ... However, the decision taken at that time to join the EU has undoubtedly resulted in the identity of the Latvian nation developing in unison with the European identity, and our country has not been left stuck in the middle between East and West.”

Magyar Nemzet (HU) /

Unity doesn't mean uniformity

Hungary's Minister for Europe János Bóka explains in Magyar Nemzet the Orbán government's course on EU policy:

“Europe can only be united in diversity. Our membership of the EU does not oblige us to homogeneity, but to cooperation. ... The hegemony of opinion that we are experiencing in the EU today is also a crisis phenomenon that must be countered by a culture of tolerance and consensus-building. The real enemies of Europe are not those who offer alternative European solutions in response to failures and crises. The enemies of Europe are those who stifle political debate and exert political and financial pressure to force member states with a different point of view to adapt.”

Die Presse (AT) /

Double standards

Die Presse is sceptical that the reservations vis-à-vis Eastern European countries have been overcome:

“Prejudices are still lurking beneath the surface, as the (substantively justified) criticism of the illiberal developments in Budapest and Warsaw has shown - criticism that was and still is expressed with far less force in the case of similar developments in Rome, The Hague or Copenhagen. And yes, as far as institutional practice is concerned, for example when it comes to filling posts in the EU, Central Eastern Europeans are still underrepresented.”