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Growing Pains: Enlargement

December 16, 2011

For most of its history, the European Union and its predecessors (the European Coal and Steel Community—the ECSC—and the European Economic Community) has expanded in a gradual, piecemeal fashion. In 1973, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark joined the original six founding members of the ECSC. The 1980’s witnessed the accession of three former military dictatorships that had recently democratized – Greece in 1981, followed by Spain and Portugal in 1986. And in 1995, three prosperous democracies that had until then voluntarily stayed out of the EU joined: Austria, Sweden, and Finland.

Source: UK Local Government Association

The “Big Bang Enlargement” of 2004 was notable both for its scale and its symbolic importance. Ten new member states joined: Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia. With the exception of the first two, all of these were former communist states. Most of them had seen their communist regimes collapse during the wave of demonstrations that shook Eastern Europe in 1989. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had only gained their independence in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union. So, the 2004 enlargement not only was the largest in the EU’s history in terms of the number of states, population (bringing in 74 million new citizens), and territory, it also symbolized the destruction of the historic divide between Eastern and Western Europe. In 2007, two additional post-communist countries for whom it taken a bit longer to meet the EU’s accession criteria joined: Bulgaria and Romania.

These enlargements had serious implications for the way the EU and its specific institutions functioned. For example, the number of deputies in the European Parliament was increased and the apportionment of seats among countries had to be altered to accommodate the new members. Meetings in the Council of Ministers would now feature 27, rather than 15, national ministers. The enlargements also increased number of the EU’s official languages by ten, necessitating a search for new translators and making the EU a virtual Babel.

But perhaps the most radical implications of the 2004 and 2007 enlargements were in the economic realm. While the pre-2004 EU15 contained a great deal of cross-regional variation in economic development, this variation increased substantially with the accession of much poorer, less developed post-communist countries. Although the free movement of labor and capital is enshrined as a core principal of the EU’s common market, many older members feared an influx of citizens from the new member states (although some studies show that this movement has not been as significant as expected). The older states were allowed to impose transitional restrictions on the free movement of labor from the new member states. The enlargement also led to new policy cleavages and political alignments; for example, the Eastern European member states have tended to take a tougher stance vis-à-vis Russia (pdf) than, say, Germany or France.

The accession of formerly communist East European countries was also of both symbolic and practical importance to those Hoosiers of East European descent. Many of these individuals have families in Eastern Europe whom it was difficult to visit during the communist era. Shortly after joining the EU, these countries intensified their efforts to ease visa restrictions to travel to the U.S. In 2008, nearly all of the new EU members were admitted into the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of these countries to visit the U.S. without a visa for stays of less than three months. Among the new members, only Poland has thus far been excluded from the program, although the Obama administration has promised to allow Poland in.

Source: European Union

In terms of the functioning of its political institutions, the EU seems to have coped admirably with the recent enlargements. And despite the recent Euro crisis, three post-communist states have eagerly joined the euro zone and several more are set to do so. The Big Bang Enlargement of 2004 was in all probability a unique event. The list of countries that are seen as legitimate contenders to join the EU at any point in the near future barely exceeds ten, and it is unlikely that they will all join simultaneously. Croatia looks set to join in 2013, and Serbia and Turkey might follow sometime thereafter. Although a 2004-style enlargement might not be repeated, however, it still provokes interesting questions. To what extent has the enlargement succeeded in eliminating the divides between Eastern and Western Europe? Did such a massive enlargement create a sense of ‘enlargement fatigue’ that might negatively affect the prospects of current candidates? What is the future of EU enlargement?

For more information on the One State, One World series, please visit  This episode of One State One World is produced in partnership of WFIU Public Radio and the EU Center at Indiana University with partial support from the European Union.

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