Dec 17, 2014
Ten years ago it was a subject of debate among scholars, politicians, and economists: the eastward expansion of the European Union (EU). Many of the fears that circulated at the time have turned out to be unfounded, as Professor Tanja Börzel, head of the Center for European Integration at the Otto Suhr Institute at Freie Universität Berlin, points out.
Tanja Börzel says, “Contrary to expectations, the Central European and Eastern European countries have integrated very well into the European Union so far.” The enlargement, which encompassed ten new Member States, including Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states, was dubbed the “Big Bang.”
One piece of evidence, she says, is the unusual degree of compliance with European law in these countries. The worry that large numbers of the poor would immigrate from the new Member States is also “without empirical evidence,” says the professor, who also deals with the question of the EU’s new members in her capacity as head of the MAXCAP international research alliance.
The full name of the alliance, which was launched in 2013, is “Maximizing the integration capacity of the European Union: Lessons and prospects for enlargement and beyond.” The researchers focus on the question of how past enlargements have affected the EU’s integration capacity. The project is scheduled to run until 2016. Nine partner institutions are involved in the alliance, which receives funding from the EU. Alongside universities in Budapest, Florence, Istanbul, Leiden, London, Sofia, and Zurich, a civil society network from the Balkans is also participating.
The initial results of MAXCAP include the finding that the EU has changed its strategies for preparing candidate countries for membership over the various rounds of expansion. For its eastward enlargement, the EU created extensive pre-accession programs to help with the often-difficult structural changes even before the countries joined the union.
The prospect of accession was an important incentive for candidates to implement political and economic reforms within their internal policies, explains Julia Langbein, who holds a doctorate in political science and works as the academic coordinator at MAXCAP. During the southern expansion in the 1980s, efforts to improve competitiveness did not start until after countries had already joined, she confirms. “This new approach could be one of the reasons that the new Member States in Central and Eastern Europe have integrated better than expected,” Börzel says.
The research group has also identified where problems lie. For example, despite sanction clauses, the EU is apparently powerless when political reforms are rolled back in the new Member States. This is the case in Hungary, for example, where strict limits on freedom of the press were enacted after the country joined the EU.
The fact that Jean-Claude Juncker, at the time the European Commission’s President-elect, called this past summer for a five-year halt on new memberships does not affect the appeal the EU still has among other countries, Börzel says. “As a region of peace, freedom, and prosperity, Europe still has tremendous international appeal despite the crisis.”