Slovenia, the second smallest but economically most advanced of the ten post-communist countries that joined the European Union on 1 May 2004, assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 January 2007. It was the first of all the twelve recent entrants in the European Union (1) to be selected to perform the tasks and functions of this demanding and complex post. As one of the key priorities of its EU presidency, it strongly pushed for the continuation and acceleration of the integration of countries from the so-called western Balkan region into the European Union. (2) This was an attempt by a close neighbour with strong ties and interests in the region to help bring the process of eastern enlargement of the European Union, which started almost 20 years ago, to its logical completion.
Despite its relative slowness, this process can be characterised as a very successful story thus far. It belies some gloomy scenarios and sceptical expectations posited by some academic and wider intellectual circles in 'old' (western) members of the European Union. To a much lesser extent, members of the ex-communist nomenklatura (which in the eastern newcomers have often been connected and co-ordinated with certain nationalist political circles) echoed such sentiments. The former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the European Union during the 2004 enlargement round--with Slovenia, Hungary, Czech Republic and the Baltic states at the forefront--are continuing to catch up with the EU-15 states. This is true not only of their economic development and the equalisation of GDP per capita but also of the general characteristics of their peoples' living standards and way of life. The citizens of the western EU members benefit from being surrounded by a friendly, politically democratic and economically prosperous neighbourhood.
The costs of EU enlargement with the economically less and socio-culturally differently developed countries from the eastern parts of European continent (especially during their more than 40-year long communist experience) threatened to be a serious burden on people's economic and social well-being in the EU-15. These fears have not yet been realised. Stories abound of 'Polish plumbers' and the increased pressure o flow-skilled work migrants from Eastern Europe on labour markets in western EU members, (3) especially Great Britain, Sweden and Ireland (which did not use the opportunity to impose restrictions on labour migration from the new entrants for up to seven years after their admission to the European Union). But the basic economic indicators in these countries are positive and even better after the 'first round' of EU enlargement to the east than before 2004. Although the unemployment rate is (at the EU-15 average) still relatively high and had until very recently showed little change since the early 2000s, (4) the economic growth rates were significantly higher in these countries in 2006 and 2007 than at the beginning of this decade, while inflation remained moderately low (Table 1).
On the other hand, the positive impacts of the integration into the much larger EU market as well as the completion of their post-communist transformation into 'functioning market economies' (5) (which is largely in accordance with and thanks to EU requirements and assistance) have contributed to an extraordinary increase in economic growth in the new EU members (Table 2). The high increase in economic output and the closely related improvement in rural and urban social infrastructures in a relatively short period of time have gradually lessened the divide in people's living standards, cultural habits and social norms between the 'old' and new EU members. Yet the story of EU enlargement to the east and its positive impacts on the EU member states and people on both sides of the …