The biggest ever EU enlargement had entered adulthood. Ten countries joined the EU in 2004, almost doubling the number of Member States. Love it or loathe it, the European Union is undoubtedly a major global political and economic player. And a discussion is inevitable on it.
On 1 May 2004, Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the European Union. It may still seem a recent event for many, but the world was a very different place then. Just to give an example, in 2004, the most popular foldable phone had no touchscreen, you could not connect to the internet with it, and its storage capacity was approximately 100,000 times smaller than the latest iPhone. Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram did not even exist, and Facebook was just founded.
The world population was one billion less, and the tallest building was 300 meters lower than the Burj Khalifa. Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were still alive, and we could not even see the signs of the financial crisis of 2007-2008. NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover has not taken its famous selfie yet. Nobody has died in the Ebola virus epidemic or the COVID-19 pandemic. Russia has not yet attacked Ukraine… twice. The MeToo and BLM hashtags were unknown.
This article does not try to unravel how EU accession has affected the economies of the new member states or what would have happened if they had not joined the EU. That would be a very difficult task. The article does not even attempt to decide whether joining the EU was a good, beneficial decision for the countries mentioned above. There are many advantages, such as the free movement of goods and persons, the wide opportunities to work and study abroad, the enlarged single market, free roaming, and stronger consumer rights. But the drawbacks should also be mentioned. EU decisions often favor the Union as a whole rather than the individual member states’ interests. Thus, some might dislike that their country’s autonomy is curtailed. Furthermore, the EU is a highly bureaucratic organization with a slow and complex decision-making process that is not adequate if a quick response is required.
Nonetheless, the countries that joined the EU in 2004 have the most positive attitudes towards the European Union. In Poland, 84% of the population is pro-European, in Lithuania, 83%, Slovakia, 70%, and even in Hungary, 67% of the respondents said they support the European Union.
These countries have become a vital part of the EU. Almost all member states of the Three Seas Initiative joined the EU in 2004, with only Austria joining earlier, in 1995, Bulgaria and Romania a few years later, in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. A quarter of the EU’s population, 112 million people, lives in this region, and these countries’ GDP is approximately $2,100 billion. The 3SI member states consist of a booming area of the EU. Since 2004, the GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity has almost tripled. As we have reported previously, according to the latest figures, Poland and Hungary have overtaken Portugal in this respect.
Only two disruptions have hit the region’s economic growth since 2004. First, the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and second, the COVID-19 pandemic. During the crises, the regional countries experienced a decline in annual GDP per capita, but there was a stable growth of between 1 and 6% in all the other years. In addition, this region was the least affected by the COVID-19 recession in the EU. Central and Eastern Europe is an essential region economically but also politically. Due to the shared historical and cultural traditions, political alliances such as the Visegrád Group have developed organically. Such groups are more effective in representing the region’s interests than the individual countries.
This article aims to celebrate that the bulk of Central and Eastern Europe joined a political and economic community eighteen years ago. That Europe now means more than geographical proximity and shared history and culture. The Europeans’ cooperation across many countries, across a whole continent, demonstrates that there is no conflict between respecting countries’ national sovereignty and working closely together to achieve our common interests.