CEPS: Celebrating the 20th anniversary of the EU’s ‘big bang’ enlargement: identifying lessons for the future

by | May 6, 2024

(April 30, 2024 – CEPS)


  • Michael Emerson, Senior Associate Research Fellow, CEPS, former EU Ambassador to Russia
  • Kristi Raik, Deputy Director of ICDS, Tallinn
  • Stephanie Laulhe Shaelou, Professor of European Law and Reform, UCLan Cyprus


  • Steven Blockmans, Senior Research Fellow

Steven Blockmans opened the panel declaring that the EU is in enlargement mode again after the membership application by Ukraine, so it is timely to discuss the biggest enlargement to date with the economic and political transformation that it has brought.

To outline the context, Michael Emerson showed figures about autocratic tendencies in China, Russia and India, as well as democratic tendencies in Western and Eastern Europe. The latter revealed improvement in the candidate countries until the ‘big bang’, then some relapse and deterioration in recent years. The enlargement seemed to be unambiguously successful from the macroeconomic point of view, but much more complicated concerning the new member states’ politics directly leading to autocratic issues.

Emerson revealed the four factors in the deterioration of the West and its democratic order. First, climate as the global South blames the West for global warming, and it being slow in meeting pledges. Second, the Covid pandemic as immunization led to increased centralized powers, and the global South criticized the West for hogging vaccines. Third, macroeconomic disorders such as financial crises and apparent inequalities between the global South and the West. And finally, new geopolitics with the rise of China, complemented with Russia, and Donald Trump damaging the West’s reputation.

The big paradox seems to be how the EU has been shaping its identity in response to these global phenomena. Related to climate, it made major advances to combat global warming. In the Covid pandemic, the EU invented a new public health competence with equal treatment, and a recovery and resilience facility. Concerning macroeconomic disorders, it prevented the wreckage of the Eurozone, and its social policies aim to maintain welfare states and fiscal redistribution to moderate inequalities. However, when it comes to new geopolitics, the EU seems to be weak in substance and impact of rhetoric, and even though it provides a financial assistance to Ukraine, the military help is limited.

The question is how to secure the map of democratic Europe. The next enlargement will be categorically different from 2004, since it has become a geopolitical imperative. The current process is still stagnant and stuck, and there is a political ambiguity between member states blocking the process. But the reservation of member states might be justified: new and fragile democracies could result in more “Orbán-type” of problems.

Emerson suggested three things: no veto powers for the new member states transitionally, a reformed article 7 suspending all voting powers of member states in serious breach, or a new category of associate membership. The scene is set for a new enlargement, but the reform of methodology is not there yet. The overarching question is whether the EU can crystallize its awareness of its identity to the point of empowering a new will to defend it. Emerson also wondered if Vladimir Putin, an “absolute autocrat” could reunify Europe. As he formulated it, maybe not yet, but he sure seems to be able to energize it.

Kristi Raik talked about Estonia’s perspective and her own memories. She thinks it is odd to not see as much celebration at the 20th anniversary as back then, since the support for the EU is high among Estonians. The country benefited from the membership even if it has a flip side, namely the unavoidable limitations of national sovereignty.

Heated discussions preceded the accession, but from the foreign policy perspective, it was evident that reintegration into the West was the way to go. According to Raik, in the future enlargement of the EU, the elements that mattered 20 years ago, such as security and secure economy remain just as crucial today. But she highlighted that candidates have to do their homework. It was especially important for Baltic states since they had an extra effort to make to convince the EU member states of the enlargement. The merit-based approach was just as essential back then, as it is part of the credibility of the process. But meeting the criteria was never a guarantee of not experiencing setbacks, like in the case of Hungary. Raik implied that other instruments are needed to tackle rule of law problems.

She shared some details about what has been achieved in Estonia. Economically speaking, it was a success, because Estonia’s GDP went from less than 50% to 90% of the EU average. Estonia actually might soon become a net contributor leaving the net beneficiary position behind. When it comes to democracy, rule of law and freedom of the press, Estonia is in a favourable position on the global scale, and the EU membership contributed to that. Estonia also experienced a rise of radical right populism, but the support in the country was never as high to face similar setbacks as Poland and Hungary.

Raik expressed that Estonia is a strong supporter of the next enlargement. Even though the geopolitical environment is different today, for Estonia, the enlargement was also about security. She touched upon the relations between EU and NATO as well. The enlargement of these organisations moved “hand-in-hand” which was crucial since NATO membership can offer a credible security practice, something the EU does not have the instruments for. The division of labour between EU and NATO is even clearer today. The biggest question for European security is the outcome of the Ukraine-Russia war. Raik thinks that Russia must be militarily defeated, forced to give up, to stabilize the situation.

Stephanie Laulhe Shaelou remarked that Central and Eastern European countries’ fortune improved since their accession, even if some of them still need to catch up. She talked about Cyprus which gained few short term financial benefits from the accession. Cyprus became a net contributor and acceded to the Eurozone which was one of its main goals. Even if being outside the Eurozone would have meant more financial tools, joining the Eurozone meant that the financial assistance which became available was close to nothing equivalent. According to Laulhe Shaelou, if Cyprus had not joined, handling the crises would have been far worse, but this way, Cyprus was able to overcome great economic challenges.

Laulhe Shaelou also mentioned the tendencies of democratic backsliding in EU countries such as Hungary and Poland, Malta, Slovakia and Greece, transitioning from genuinely liberal to mere electoral democracies. She emphasized that these trends should not continue and drew attention to Emmanuel Macron’s speech on Europe, and the basic idea of Europeanization. Laulhe Shaelou believes that thinking about what would have happened without the EU is an interesting question to consider in these autocratic times.

She highlighted that Cyprus joined the EU because of security over economic considerations, since the country was economically strong. As Cyprus is a divided island, it was important that the whole area would join the EU. She admitted that accession negotiations might have been done too quickly which has had some repercussions since. The issue is that the special regime put in place across the green line – the de facto border between the Greek-majority Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – was meant to be temporary, but it has somehow become permanent. Laulhe Shaelou assumes that it would be time to explore if there are any kinds of systemic problems to its functioning. According to her, Cyprus could be used as a precedent in the enlargement process, even if more could have been done in the triangular relationship of the EU, Cyprus and Turkey.

Link to the event with video recording:

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