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Issue 4/2024: 20 years later. Is Europe still united?

Twenty years ago, the European Union experienced its largest enlargement ever, the so-called Big Bang, with the addition of 10 new member states. This enlargement included many of the countries in our region – Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The latest issue of New Eastern Europe takes a look at what was achieved and what challenges remain.

June 22, 2024 - New Eastern Europe

Give European democracy a chance. An enlarged Europe turns twenty

Over the past two decades, the project of European integration has been moderately “failing forward”. Many issues have accompanied this process and their sum calls for a reinvention of European democracy.

Two decades have passed since the European Union’s “Big Bang enlargement” into Central and Eastern Europe. This anniversary prompts a reflection on the EU's evolution and where the European project stands today. The analysis below is based on the three main processes that have shaped the EU since 2004: widening and deepening, the impact of crises, and the emergence of new political divides.

June 22, 2024 - Ferenc Laczó

Adolescence is over. Time for updates to the Central European growth model

The 20th anniversary of the 2004 European Union enlargement should constitute an occasion not only to celebrate the numerous economic successes of the last two decades, but also to reflect on upcoming development challenges. Although growth since the accession has been pretty solid and stable, its foundations are still not robust enough, especially given the current uncertainties concerning geopolitics and geoeconomics.

Twenty years of EU membership for the Central European countries have seen great success from an economic point of view. The dynamics of GDP growth have been relatively high, with the convergence process progressing and foreign trade developing at the same time. The inflow of direct investments has also been fairly intense, while unemployment decreased to the lowest levels in Europe. In addition, the region's countries have generally managed to maintain stability in their public finances.

June 22, 2024 - Konrad Popławski

Navigating new security threats requires a change in focus

Czechia, together with its neighbours Poland and Slovakia, joined the European Union 20 years ago, a time when the security landscape in Europe looked completely different. Today the threats now faced by the Czechs and their neighbours require a completely new approach and mindset. Only then can the values enshrined in the EU treaty be truly protected.

The European Security Strategy was adopted in December 2003 and has become a landmark in the development of the EU’s foreign and security policy. For the first time, the member states agreed on a joint threat assessment and set clear objectives for advancing their security interests, which are all based on shared values. Twenty years since the adoption of the security strategy, the EU carries greater responsibilities than at any time in its history as it faces new, increasingly complex threats and challenges.

June 22, 2024 - Anna Dohnalová

The Baltics have grown up. Do not call them new member states

As the core of EU decision-making becomes more plural and less a monopoly of the Paris-Berlin engine – Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius have proven to have reached full adulthood as EU member states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are no longer “new member states” aspiring to be good students in a never-ending exam. The idea of an old Europe looking down at a teenage new Europe has been surpassed by history.

Twenty years ago, on May 1st 2004, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania together with other countries from Central and Eastern Europe joined the European Union in what has become known as the “Big Bang enlargement”– the EU’s most ambitious expansion. Since they regained their independence in 1991, after more than 40 years of brutal Soviet occupation, the Baltic states have spent almost two-thirds of their recent independent history as EU members.

June 22, 2024 - Stefano Braghiroli

Hungarian metamorphosis: from returning to Europe to occupying Brussels

Hungary joined the European Union 20 years ago and became a member of NATO 25 years ago. Yet, neither occasion has been officially commemorated by the Hungarian government. As Viktor Orbán geared up for this year’s European parliamentary election and the Hungarian EU Council presidency due to take place from July, he announced that he wants to “occupy Brussels”.

With today’s Hungarian government being one of the staunchest critics of the European Union, the memory of the country’s drive towards integration after regime change seems ever so distant. Still, joining the EU – as well as NATO – was one of the three key goals that underpinned Hungarian foreign policy throughout the 1990s and, except for the Eurosceptic extreme right’s objection, was supported by all political forces. The stages of the accession process itself reflected this broad political consensus.

June 22, 2024 - Zsuzsanna Végh

The ability to reconcile is a mark of a nation’s maturity

A conversation with Milan Kučan, the first president of Slovenia from 1991 to 2002. Interviewer: Nikodem Szczygłowski

NIKODEM SZCZYGŁOWSKI: In 2004, at the time of the EU’s enlargement, Slovenia was considered one of the most developed countries in the region – much more so than Poland, the Czech Republic or Lithuania. Now, 20 years later, we can see that the achievements of Poland or Lithuania were greater than those of Slovenia. Slovenia was at the highest level when it joined the EU, and it is still at a high level, but Poland or Lithuania have caught up much more and are much closer to Slovenia. What are the reasons for this?

MILAN KUČAN: Slovenia was ahead of all these countries in terms of development parameters at that time. But then, it actually developed more slowly. This was due to the specific features of the economic and privatization reforms in Slovenia, but also a number of other factors. At a certain point, Slovenia actually stopped or paid much less attention to economic development than to internal ideological debates, political divisions and so on.

June 22, 2024 - Milan Kučan Nikodem Szczygłowski

By allowing Western Balkans democracy to falter for two decades, the EU has trapped itself

In 2003, the year before its “Big Bang” enlargement, the European Union made a declaration in Thessaloniki: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” In the 20 years since, the EU has not made good on that promise of future membership, nor have leaders in the Western Balkans risen to the occasion.

The all-but-halted integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union has led experts and citizens alike to wonder why the transformative power of the EU, at its peak in 2004 when it admitted ten countries from Central Europe and beyond, has proven ineffectual in this region. The answer is a combination of EU and region-specific factors. The EU failed to put democracy at the centre of its policy towards the Western Balkans as it was able to for the “Big Bang” countries. Twenty years later, poor democratic governance is the main obstacle to the region’s future membership.

June 22, 2024 - Alexandra Karppi

The changing narrative of Chinese foreign policy

The messaging found in Chinese foreign policy is used for specific purposes. For the most part, China is presenting itself as a positive alternative to western domination and a country interested in peace and stability. Under the surface, however, a closer examination reveals different intentions.

After decades of a focus on the West in global politics and the dominance of “Westsplaining” therein, the focus of the international community is now, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, visibly shifting towards the East. This shift is of course dictated by Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and the immediate threat that it poses to the European Union and NATO. However, the eyes of free world’s public and policymakers are not stopping only at Russia’s borders. They look further, all the way to China.

June 22, 2024 - Konrad Szatters

Lessons about cyber warfare from Russia’s war against Ukraine

The war in Ukraine serves as a stark reminder of the diverging approaches to establishing red lines in the realm of cyber operations, accentuating the complexities inherent in establishing normative frameworks for governing cyberspace. The intersection of cyber warfare with traditional kinetic conflict further exacerbates the complexities of norm development, underlining the urgent need for sustained efforts to bridge gaps and address grey areas in international law.

In the contemporary landscape of warfare, the lines between traditional kinetic operations and cyber warfare are increasingly blurred. Last year alone, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) thwarted over 4,500 major cyber-attacks. Many of these cyber-attacks were coupled with scores of conventional missile strikes. This underlines the urgent need for international cooperation to confront cyber threats.

June 22, 2024 - Leon Hartwell Maria Branea

Is Klaipėda worth a war?

In all the eight years since 2014, Moscow has spent time challenging the vigilance of its democratic victims. Despite the sanctions, joint strategic projects with Europe still flourished. One of them, Nord Stream 2, speaks volumes today. Everything was done to destroy the western democracies' ability to resist.

Walking along Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw, everything speaks of prosperity and comfort. Couples in love sip coffee in restaurants, radiating happiness. Families with children stroll, enjoying the weekend. Everyone lives their own life – the government, the opposition, farmers and transporters. The war with Russia is not visible in peaceful Europe, although it is already underway. However, the population of Europe and the political elites of the EU try not to notice it. They are not ready for it. An abstract question could therefore be asked regarding this relative calm: "Is Klaipėda worth a war?"

June 22, 2024 - Oleh Dunda

Russian aggression against Ukraine: No peace in sight

Negotiations concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine have been going on for many years at this point. While there have been almost continuous discussions regarding peace, it has become clear that Moscow does not place any real value in such talks. The war will therefore be decided on the battlefield.

Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia broke down completely on September 30th 2022, when the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council made a unanimous decision that it was impossible to negotiate with Vladimir Putin and approved Ukraine’s symbolic application for NATO membership. The decision was preceded by seven years of fruitless attempts to settle the conflict between the two countries through diplomatic means, which was followed by the full-scale Russian aggression against Ukraine and several more fruitless negotiation rounds.

June 22, 2024 - Yulia Kazdobina


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