Hannes Richter

European Union Enlargement

Hannes Richter


Hungarian Mayor Morton Ropos of Felsöszölnök, Slovenian Mayor Joyef Skalic of Kuyma, Sri Chinmoy and Austrian Mayor Franz Kern of St. Martin an der Raab (left to right) join hands during a ceremony uniting the three countries on May 1, 2004 at the border.

After the European Union (EU) grew from originally six members in 1958 to fifteen members in 1995, it celebrated an historic enlargement on May 1, 2004 as ten countries from Central Europe and the Mediterranean became members. It is the largest expansion in terms of scale and diversity that has ever taken place and will become the world’s biggest single market. Its surface area increased by a quarter and its population by one fifth to 450 million people. Thirteen nations applied for membership. Ten of these countries, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia joined on May 1, 2004. A ceremony marked the achievement in Dublin, Ireland at the President’s residence.

In order to join the Union, countries had to fulfill special economic and political conditions, or the socalled “Copenhagen Criteria.” A future member state had to fulfill the following prerequisites:

Stability of institutions, democracy, rule of law, human rights, as well as regard for and protection of minorities;

A functioning free market economy;

Adoption of the Community’s rules, standards and politics, which represent the entirety of EU law.

The EU supports these states in adopting EU law and offers them financial support in order to improve their infrastructure and economy. The promise of membership has already acted as a carrot stimulating wide-ranging economic and social reforms in the new member states. In the process, these countries have attracted foreign investment which has helped their economies to achieve rapid growth rates.

Why is this happening?

Supporters of enlargement say this was an historic opportunity to unite Europe peacefully after generations of division and conflict. It extends the stability and prosperity of current member states to a wider group of countries, making Europe a safer place. Alone the size of the single market should boost the EU economy and create jobs while increasing the influence of the EU worldwide.

How will enlargement change the EU?

The new members are expected to give strong support to the drive for economic modernization in the EU. They are also generally more pro-American than some older EU member states. One fear in Brussels is that with twenty-five countries, meetings will take longer, and it will be harder to make decisions. Pessimists predict gridlock. The new member states are also likely to resist new EU initiatives that cost more than they can easily afford. The European parliament has 732 seats instead of 626. This means that most of the old member states will have fewer members of the European Parliament and the five bigger states will lose their second commissioner.

How poor are the new member states?

Their average GDP per capita is 40% of the average level in the "older" fifteen EU member states. Some, however, are richer than others. Cyprus and Slovenia are at the top of the scale with 70% or more of the average EU wealth levels, while Latvia is closer to 35%.

Will people from the East want to come and work in the West?

Some undoubtedly will, but forecasts of numbers vary widely (see Austrian Information article May June issue, East-West Migration, on pgs. 4-6). A recent EU study suggested a total of 220,000 migrants per year spread throughout among all fifteen "older" member states. However, that figure was based on the assumption that migrants would enjoy full freedom of movement, while in fact most existing EU member states are implementing some form of restriction, at least for the first two years.

How much money will new member states get from the EU?

During the first three years, the EU will spend 40 billion euros on the new members states, but these countries will pay 15 million euros into the EU budget. So the net transfer of funds to the new members will be 25 million euros. By comparison, the cost of German reunification totalled 600 billion euros between 1990 and 1999.

How enthusiastic are the people of the new member states about the EU?

All of the countries except Cyprus held referendums on membership in 2003, and all voted in favor. The "yes" vote ranged from 54% in Malta to 93% in Slovakia. The average was 78%. Voter turnout ranged from 46% in Hungary to 91% in Malta.

Is any further enlargement planned?

Three states, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey, are candidates to join. Bulgaria and Romania are on course for accession in 2007. Turkey has not yet started talks on membership. The EU will decide this year whether to begin them in 2005. Croatia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have officially applied to join the EU. The other South Eastern Europe countries have all been promised membership if and when they fulfil the political and economic criteria. No decision has been taken on further expansion to the East, for example to the Urkaine or Moldova. There are two countries that have at times come close to opting for membership: Norway and Switzerland.