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An unconventional marriage: twenty years since the EU’s “Big Bang enlargement”

Two decades have now passed since ten countries joined the European Union at the same time. Mainly based in Central and Eastern Europe, these nations have transformed the bloc into a body defining continental realities at every level.

March 18, 2024 - Ferenc Laczó - Articles and Commentary

Landmark that notes Poland's accession to the EU on the Market Square in Kraków. Photo: Wiola Wiaderek / Shutterstock

The “Big Bang enlargement” of the EU some two decades ago has changed the Union more than West Europeans had expected but less than East Europeans had hoped. How the two parties have experienced their unconventional marriage since may be best explained through those divergent expectations. Those expectations are also, I propose, the root cause of the mutual disappointments with how their relationship has functioned over the past two decades.

As they were entering into this marriage, West Europeans tended to trust that adding numerous rather peripheral – and mostly smallish – countries could be managed well and thought that the process was unlikely to transform Europe as a whole. This made good sense at the time. The gap between “the two halves of the continent” may never have appeared as large as when the Copenhagen Criteria were formulated in 1993. In those same years, East Europeans were experiencing a deep socio-economic crisis and undertaking an unprecedented transformation. Unlike their groom, they cherished illusions prior to 2004 that their future EU membership would soon result in substantial – individual as well as collective – equality within the enlarged project of integration.

Being driven by expanding markets and without a common social agenda, the EU’s enlargement to Eastern Europe was always likely to reproduce, if not sharpen, core-periphery relations. Billions in capital investment have moved eastward since, mostly in search of skilled but cheaper labour. Millions of people have moved westward in the meantime in search of higher salaries and a better quality of life. The first kind of movement was obviously not the kind of change the citizens of West European countries desired, but the second was not hoped for either. Citizens of Eastern European countries found a curious kind of equality of opportunity once abroad – not the kind that they would have chosen had they been able to decide freely.

That sobering assessment of our unconventional European marriage after the Cold War is not to overlook the fact that some East European states have fared significantly better in recent decades than southern countries such as Italy or Greece. Core and periphery in fact overlap much less directly with Western and Eastern Europe today than they did back in the 1990s. Despite compensatory mechanisms primarily in the shape of structural funds, the eastern peripheries of the Union have certainly not disappeared though. As a matter of fact, the twenty least developed regions within the EU are still all concentrated in the vicinity of the Union’s eastern border.

I would argue that the “Big Bang enlargement” has made a greater difference when it comes to balances within the Union’s complex architecture. While nearly every second member state of the EU could be called “post-Eastern” by 2013, in demographic terms the “newer” ones possessed only about one-fifth of the overall population. There being significant overall economic disparities between the “two halves” in the early 21st century, the relative share of these states has in fact remained well below one-fifth.

In other words, a relatively underdeveloped part of the continent has come to play a disproportionately large political role on the European level post-2004 – being responsible, among others, for nearly every second Council vote and European commissioner. At the same time, East Europeans would do this without acquiring anything like a proportional share of the EU’s own political, economic, and cultural elites. They have acquired significant clout within the Union via the nation-state principle but continue to exert only limited influence via transnational logics. Could it be that the – at times vocal – insistence of some East Europeans on the primacy of national principles is not unrelated to this basic structural features of European politics in our age?

Beyond not living up to either of the aforementioned, rather divergent expectations and making the EU less balanced, developments since the “Big Bang enlargement” have also corrected some optical illusions when it comes to the question of democracy. West European tutelage after the Cold War made East Europeans perceive the EU as an eager promoter and effective guarantor of democratic standards. The years since have rather amounted to a process of unlearning, bringing a growing – and often painful – realization that liberal democratic norms are much less firmly secured in the EU than they had come to assume.

Critical EU experts have been long aware of the bloc’s construction fault in this regard. However, the rather complacent attitudes of this all too gentlemanly club started to seriously harm millions of EU citizens only more recently. This is clear most obviously with regards to Hungary, a place where, ironically enough, pro-democratic expectations towards this club used to be among the highest.

One might interject that enlargement still qualifies as the single most successful EU policy. It has indeed turned a regional organization with a rather limited mandate into a continent-wide experiment with highly tangible impacts. However, that only makes it more urgent to assess the achievements and shortcomings of this momentous process in a balanced and realistic way.

Where has the EU arrived two decades after the “Big Bang”? Only a few still believe that widening and deepening integration can succeed at the same time. From today’s point of view, the 1990s must therefore appear as the highpoint of Europeanist hopes. However, the discontent that the unconventional marriage between the two halves of the continent has generated also yields new possibilities.

Looking at the relationship between widening and deepening European integration with fresh eyes can in fact offer a most fruitful way to perceive our current situation. More than thirty years after Maastricht and Copenhagen, and two decades after the “Big Bang”, widening and deepening the EU are both on the table again but this time rather separately – as in widening to some, so that others may deepen their integration without their current, increasingly awkward partners.

The ambition to pursue integration in this parallel manner may well reshape the EU in the coming years. This would be another unexpected consequence of Europeans’ marriage vows from twenty years ago.

A more extended, essayistic version of this of op-ed is published in the Review of Democracy.

Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor in European History at Maastricht University and a visiting assistant professor at Columbia University in 2023-24. His recent publications include Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide: An Intellectual History 1929-1948 (Leiden: Brill, 2016). He is also the co-editor of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 (CEU Press–Eurozine, 2020) and Magyarország globális története (A Global History of Hungary, in two volumes, 2022-23).

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