The Role of Eastern Europe in an Enlarged EU

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the European Union will expand eastward in the year 2004. Of the twelve countries vying for EU membership, only ten have realistic chances of being admitted in two years, but even an enlargement involving “only” ten countries will significantly change the EU in geographical, geopolitical, economic and social terms.

Many people in the current EU countries are looking at the year of 2004 with apprehension or even fear. The potential new member countries are for many West Europeans part of the „unknown“ East, despite the fact that, for example, Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is situated to the west of Vienna, and all Central European candidate countries are rooted in Western traditions and history much more than, for example, Greece.

Feelings of apprehension on the part of West Europeans are not surprising, however. After all, the eastern part of Europe was cut off from the rest of Europe for a substantial period of time –as it was politically, militarily and economically part of the Soviet empire for more than 40 years. It’s no wonder, therefore, that Eastern Europe is often viewed by the West as “alien.”

Significantly poorer than the EU’s current members, those countries aspiring to EU membership are also seen as a potential economic burden. Many people in the West are understandably afraid of hordes of cheap laborers from the East who will deprive them of their jobs. Many are also not convinced that democracy, as a political system, has taken a firm root in Europe’s East.


Eastern Europe is, indeed, poorer than the West, and democracy is still new to the region, but the region is also, one could argue, more vigorous, more committed to the ideas of human rights and democracy that people in the West have taken for granted for so long. The East Europeans’ tragic experiences with the totalitarian system play an important role in their current strong commitment to the ideas of democracy and a free market. The moral relativism with which the West has been struggling is not as prevalent in Eastern Europe.

In concrete terms, the fact that the candidate countries are poorer is also not such bad news for the West. While it is, on the one hand, true that most new members will be net recipients of funds, it is also true that Eastern Europe offers exciting new economic opportunities. First, as Eastern Europe adapts to legal and other standards common in the West, it becomes an attractive area for investment. The cost of labor is significantly cheaper, while the standards of education and labor skills are quite high.

At the same time, since people in the candidate countries have the same aspirations as their Western counterparts, the entire region represents a significant new market not only for goods, but also for services and ideas. Many West European firms, currently struggling in saturated Western markets, may find new leases on life in Europe’s East.

The fear of hundreds of thousands of East Europeans searching for jobs in the West is also not completely rational. The current EU norms already make it possible for most East Europeans who are interested in working in the EU area to do so. In other words, a majority of the people from the East who want to work in the West have found ways to do so. Moreover, it is possible to argue that a possible flow of cheap labor from the new member countries to the West may not be entirely bad. On the one hand, it may result in job loses in some areas in Western Europe, on the other hand, employing cheaper labor also means producing cheaper goods.

Uniting the West and the East of Europe may also be positive in political terms.
Not only will it force the EU seriously to move ahead with reforms of its decision-making structures; it also may reinvigorate and expand the notion of democracy.

The reason for such a bold statement is that for many years East Europeans, unable to use political democracy, fought against the totalitarian regimes by engaging in a civil society. Building new democratic systems is thus tied to the notion that the institutions and mechanisms of political democracy in themselves do not necessarily constitute a democracy.

In other words, most potential new members represent a fertile ground for the EU’s efforts to supplement the institutional framework of democracy in the EU area with a vibrant civil society. At the same time, those candidate countries that were once part of the Soviet empire are also better disposed than their Western counterparts, where various institutional mechanisms suffer from inertia, to embracing democratic governance firmly rooted in a civil society.

History and Cultures

While talking about Eastern Europe, it is, in fact, not possible to treat all candidate countries as one group. The individual candidate countries have very diverse cultures and histories. Some of them will be readily compatible with those of a majority of current members; some will strengthen influences that have so far been only marginal in the EU.
The twelve countries that may in the foreseeable future become new EU members can be divided into four regional groups.

1. The Central European group consists of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The traditions and cultures of these five countries are predominantly Western. Each of the countries was for varying periods of time part of what could be called the German cultural and geographical space. Politically, all of them (in the case of Poland, only parts of what Poland is today) were associated with the Hapsburg Empire. All of these countries will culturally and politically gravitate mainly toward Austria and Germany. Their membership in the EU is likely to significantly strengthen the Central European influence in the EU. In fact, Central Europe is likely to become the most important regional subgroup in the EU.

As far as Poland and Slovenia are concerned, the above applies with some qualifications. Poland’s identity is not entirely Central European in that it is also a Baltic country, whose northern parts have natural ties with Scandinavia. Poland is also the only new prospective member that can be considered „a big country“, or a country aspiring to the status of a European power. Therefore, Poland is likely to pursue much more than other Central European countries its own „European agenda.“

Slovenia, although a very small country of only two million people, has three different identities that will play a role in its contributions to the EU. First, as has been mentioned, it is a Central European country with long historical ties to Austria and the German-speaking space in general. Second, some regions in Slovenia were in the past parts of Italy. Slovenia’s presence in the EU thus may also strengthen the „southern wing“ of the EU. Third, Slovenia is also partly a Balkan country-although the Slovenes do not like to be described as such. However, Slovenia will be an important bridge to the rest of the former Yugoslavia, whose various successor states will soon also strive to become members of the EU.

2. The Baltic group consists of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of whom will pursue close relationships with the Scandinavian countries. As mentioned above, Poland, too, is likely, at least partly, to look to the north. The EU membership of these states will strengthen the influence of the Scandinavian countries in the EU.

At the same time, each of the three Baltic States has also historical ties with Russia, if only through their extensive Russian minorities. In the same way that Slovenia may open the door to the Balkans, the Baltic States will be useful in expanding the EU’s relations with Russia.

3. The Balkan group of aspirants consists of Romania, Bulgaria, and Cyprus. The history, religious traditions, and cultures of these three countries differ significantly from those of most current EU members. As a result, a full integration of these three countries may be somewhat more difficult than is the case with the Central European and the Baltic countries. In the case of Romania and Bulgaria, it may also prove difficult to raise their economic standards to those of the EU as quickly as will be the case with Central European countries, for example.

The main differences between these prospective new members and the rest are as follows.

First, they are all Balkan countries, with natural ties to not only Greece but also to the countries of the former Yugoslavia. In this respect, they may be useful in serving as bridges to the states of former Yugoslavia, which will also in the future aspire to become EU members.

Second, their membership will geographically connect the EU with Turkey. Bulgaria, in particular, is a country with a relatively large Turkish minority. Turkey’s European ambitions will be strengthened by adding these three particular countries to the EU.

Third, the Byzantine traditions of these prospective new members may also serve as a cultural bridge to Russia.
4. Malta is a special case in many respects. It will slightly strengthen the Southern wing of the EU. Its cultural traditions and history may also serve as an important link between the united Europe and northern Africa.

Religious Traditions

Of all twelve potential new members only two—Latvia and Estonia—have predominantly Protestant traditions. The Czech Republic was once in its history a primarily Protestant country, but was later forcibly re-catholicized by the Hapsburgs. Still, its religious identity is split to this day. In practical terms, the Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in the world.

Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, and Slovenia are all predominantly Catholic countries. Poland, in particular, will strengthen the group of strongly religious, Catholic countries, such as Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Cyprus, Bulgaria, and Romania have Christian Orthodox traditions. Greece is the only current member of the EU that has compatible traditions. Their membership in the EU will significantly strengthen Greece’s role, as a most developed member of this regional group. So far, Greece, with its unique culture and political history, has been to some extent a rarity in the EU. This will change once Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria have been admitted.


Romanies (or Gypsies) living in the candidate countries may represent a specific dimension. There are several million Romanies living in Eastern Europe. Although they belong to different tribes, and although various countries have adopted different policies toward minorities, the overall situation of the Roma people is bad in Eastern Europe.

The EU needs to be prepared for possible large migrations of Romanies, unless their living standards in their current home countries can be improved rapidly.

According to some estimates, more than ten million Romanies live in Europe. The inclusion of the East European countries in the next enlargement wave will create a unified space, in which a free movement of people is allowed, for a large ethnic group whose members have so far been separated by boundaries and administrative barriers. In some ways, we could argue that a new nation will emerge in Europe, and that in some ways the EU enlargement includes not 12 but thirteen nations.


The enlargement of the EU may be seen as a great risk or as a great opportunity.

It will certainly change the identity of both the new members and the current members, as it will unite European countries with significantly different cultural, political, and religious traditions.

The next wave of enlargement in the year 2004, from which Bulgaria and Romania will certainly be left out, will significantly strengthen two regions within the EU: Central Europe and the Scandinavia. Regardless of whether Germany wants to be part of the Central European regional subgroup, Central Europe will play an important role in EU affairs. Adding the three Baltic States to the Scandinavian region will, conversely, strengthen the influence of the Scandinavian regional subgroup.

While adding the ten candidate countries that are in the next wave of enlargement will be a difficult process, basically all of them have Western traditions. In other words, differences between them and the current members may in the end be less important than what culturally and historically unites them. The following wave of enlargement, that would most likely include Romania and Bulgaria, would, together with Greece and Cyprus, create a subgroup of four countries whose cultural and political traditions are Byzantine and religious traditions Christian Orthodox. A real challenge to the EU, as to its ability to absorb new cultural elements, will come then.

Conference Europe in the Making, Copenhagen, Denmark 1. – 3. 11. 2002


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