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What awaits the EU, 20 years after the “big bang” for the East

The European bloc gained ten new members at the same time in May 2004. But the possible accessions of Ukraine and the Western Balkan countries promise to be more complicated countries occurred on May 1, 2004. The number of member states increased from 15 to 25 from one day to the next. The continent was reunified 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. From Estonia in the north to Slovenia in the south, celebrations 20 years ago were characterized by folk festivals and fireworks, ceremonial speeches and the breaking down of barriers. The Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus were also included.




“This was a strong signal for Russia, but not only. It demonstrated the EU’s ability to make strong decisions, to expand and to meet the conditions. It was positive because the political conditions in the EU and in the countries that have who joined the bloc were more supportive than they are today,” says Kefta Kelmendi, of the Brussels-based European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

Without alternatives

“The enlargement was good for both the EU and the ten acceding countries,” says EU expert Kelmendi in an interview with DW. Economic growth in the candidate countries has accelerated in the European single market. According to studies by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German sociopolitical research institute, the measure strengthened democracy, the rule of law and media freedom.

But Hungary and Poland are exceptions. The governments of these countries have moved away from European values. In Poland the trend was reversed only after the change of government last year. According to the Bertelmann Foundation’s Transformation Index, the Baltic countries, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Slovakia have achieved the maximum score for “consolidation of democracy”. Poland and Hungary are labeled “defective democracies”.

According to European expert Hans Kribbe of the Brussels Institute for Geopolitics (BIG), there was no alternative to the enlargement of the EU in 2004 and the late accession of Bulgaria (2007), Romania (2007) and Croatia (2013) . “It was inevitable that this would happen in response to the historical upheavals and collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc,” says Kribbe.

Two new waves

“It is clear that the European Commission fulfills its role as an enthusiastic supporter of enlargement,” says Hans Kribbe of BIG. Domestically, however, the Commission is aware that lessons need to be learned for the future from the great wave of enlargements. Above all, the EU has had to learn that it must become more responsive and simplify its procedures and processes. To date, however, there is no plan for a similar reform of the current European Union.

However, the next expansions are imminent. Six Western Balkan countries are expected to be admitted, from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Albania. Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are the latest membership candidates that could buy an express ticket to the EU, especially given the threat posed by Russia.

The Western Balkan countries have been repeatedly promised membership. Pre-accession, negotiations, adjustments: all this happened decades after the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. German Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz likes to say that now is the time to finally act.

“I don’t think there will be another big bang, it wouldn’t work,” says Tefta Kelmendi of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The six countries are very different in terms of development and membership capacity. “They will be admitted one after the other,” she speculates. First Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Serbia and Kosovo should resolve their dispute over statehood and minorities.

In any case, the resolution of the bilateral conflicts between Serbia and Kosovo could not be expected. This would mean making other countries hostage to this conflict. “The way the EU has tried to use the prospect of enlargement to solve bilateral problems has not helped the region. It is too focused on stabilization and not so much on economic development.”

Ukraine’s accession represents a challenge

Compared to the Balkan countries, Ukraine would truly represent a “big bang” for the European Union. Over 40 million inhabitants, an immense agricultural country, the poorest in Europe, seriously shaken by the war imposed by Russia. Accession negotiations are expected to begin soon with an intergovernmental conference.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is sure that Ukraine belongs to the European club. “Ukraine has made its European choice. And it knows what that means. We have made our Ukrainian choice. Just as we decided many years ago to bring many countries into our Union,” von der Leyen told the European Parliament.

“Ukraine’s accession to the European Union is as inevitable as the accession of ten states 20 years ago,” says European expert Hans Kribbe, underlining that the country also defends Europe from Russia. “Ukraine is doing all the work”, but in the end the population of the former EU countries will have to be persuaded to accept enlargement. This will require unanimity among the approximately 30 countries. In some of them it will be necessary to hold referendums.

At the moment, according to Hans Kribbe, the real problems of this expansion are not being addressed so as not to scare Europeans. “This is a risky strategy. At some point we will have to face reality.” Ukraine’s admission would require a total reorganization of the EU budget. Current net recipients of subsidies and funds, such as Poland or Hungary, would likely become net contributors who would have to donate to Ukraine and other poorer countries.

Do not stop dreaming

“It is difficult to predict when the next accessions will take place, but we must remain optimistic,” says Jerzy Buzek. The Pole has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004, when his country joined the EU. Previously, he was head of government until 2001 and contributed to the preparations for accession. “When we were young, it didn’t seem real, but (membership) has become a fact. That means we have to dream and keep our dreams,” Buzek said in Parliament, referring to the next membership candidates.

Turkey, which has been negotiating EU membership since 2005, is unlikely to join. The autocratic state is moving further and further away from European values. “This is a lost cause when it comes to membership,” says European expert Hans Krippe of the Brussels Institute of Geopolitics. He adds, however, that the EU should strive to maintain close bilateral relations with the country, a privileged partnership because Turkey occupies an important geopolitical position when it comes to defense against Russia and migration issues.

Source: Terra

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