The European Union and Expansion to the East: Aspects of Accession, Problems, and Prospects for the Future

By Medvec, Stephen E. | International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The European Union and Expansion to the East: Aspects of Accession, Problems, and Prospects for the Future


Medvec, Stephen E., International Social Science Review


On April 9, 2003, the European Parliament adopted resolutions to grant accession to ten European applicant states to become full members of the European Union (EU), the integrated economic organization of Western Europe, on May 1, 2004. This process had evolved from the European Agreements (1991), the Copenhagen Summit (1993), the Corfu Summit (1994), the Essen Summit (1994), the Amsterdam Treaty (1997), and the Nice Treaty (2001). (1) Each of these conferences and agreements called for the eight applicant states from the former communist bloc, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia (all members of the Visegrad Group and the Central European Free Trade Agreement, or CEFTA), Slovenia (also a member of CEFTA), the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the two island republics of Cyprus (the Greek Cypriot area) and Malta to meet the following criteria: (1) develop functioning market economies; (2) demonstrate respect for the rule of law and human rights; (3) adhere to the entire range of EU laws and policies (acquis communautaire), including the customs union, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), single-market laws and regulations, competition policies, as well as social and environmental policies; and, (4) join the common currency system, or euro, of the European Monetary Union. (2)

This study examines the significance of the accession of the Visegrad/CEFTA states to the EU. The process of accession, integration, leadership, and the obstacles to cooperation first among the Visegrad/CEFTA states and then during the integration of these states into the EU are its primary focus. These issues are investigated primarily from the perspective of the Visegrad/CEFTA states, which pushed for integration with Western Europe immediately following the 1989 peaceful revolution against more than forty years of Communist rule by seeking full membership in the EU. As this study will show, that wait would be a long and frustrating one for the Visegrad/CEFTA states.

The Beginnings

On March 1, 1993, the Visegrad Group, consisting of Poland, Hungary, and both the Czech and Slovak Republics, established a free-trade zone known as the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA). The process of creating this free-trade zone began when former dissidents who had risen to power in these states convened a meeting in April 1990 at Bratislava to discuss regional cooperation. This led to the formation of CEFTA two years later. The breakup of Czechoslovakia in early January 1993 and Slovenia's entry into CEFTA in 1995 completed the formation of this regional economic organization. Specifically, CEFTA called for the elimination of trade barriers between these states by 2001. It also established a framework for achieving eventual full, as opposed to associate, membership in the EU. At the same time, the Visegrad/CEFTA states sought membership in NATO collectively by supporting each other's application to join that security organization. This aspiration was realized, in part, in 1999, when the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became members of NATO. (3) The Visegrad process and the formation of CEFTA thus provided a framework for regional cooperation by which Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Slovenia, could overcome obstacles--old and more recent, historical-cultural, as well as political-economic--to coordinate their economies and join the two key economic and security organizations of the West, the EU and NATO, respectively.

While former intellectual dissidents, principally former Czechoslovak and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, initiated the integration movement, it was the West that encouraged the Visegrad/CEFTA states to pursue greater economic integration. When the initial Visegrad Group members obtained associate status in the European Commission (EC) in 1991 (which became the EU after the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993), this signaled the goodwill and the interest of the EC toward the aspirations of the applicant states.

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The European Union and Expansion to the East: Aspects of Accession, Problems, and Prospects for the Future
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