The EU and Central and Eastern Europe
While the EU has been receiving mostly bad press in recent months for the Euro financial crisis and other problems, I think that one of its greatest achievements has already been forgotten. In 2004, eight post-communist states from Central and Eastern Europe joined the EU and three years later, two more joined. Now it seems obvious that these ten states should be able to meet the Copenhagen criteria of joing the EU: democracy, free market economic system, and adopting all of the laws and regulations of the EU (i.e. the acquis communautaire).
As historians like to point out, the last time all of these countries were independent (between 1918 and 1938), only Czechoslovakia was still a democracy 20 years later. However, this time, all are still democracies and many, such as the Czech Republic and Estonia, have made huge economic gains. I think that the EU deserves some credit for this, as the desire to join has given these Central and East European countries a clear goal of admission to the EU and a roadmap to follow. For instance, Slovakia was sliding away from Europe and towards Russia, but in 1998, the Slovak electorate voted for change, which placed the country back on track towards admssion. As a result, the country joined in 2004.
Of course, if the citizens of a country do not think that a possiblity to join the EU exists or are more interested in other issues than joining the EU, the EU cannot help steer the country towards democracy and a free market. Similarly, as we are now starting to realize, the EU has a lot less sway over a country once it has joined the EU and backsliding sometimes occures. While EU accession is certainly not the only reason that Central and Eastern Europe is as open as it is today, it certainly deserves some credit. Yet the question remains in the EU if it should try to use this carrot by allowing other countries to join and how developed do these countries need to be before they can join?