European integration Special issues

Fifteen years of membership: the complexities of the EU’s eastward enlargement

The history of the European continent is a history of divisions and reunifications. In 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall has reunified Europe after almost forty-five years. East Europe and West Europe, with the end of the Cold War divide, could finally get back what history stole from them. In 1990, the Czech President Vaclav Havel referred to the “return to Europe” his country and its neighbours were about to experience[1]. The former communist countries, indeed, reacquired the means to establish relations with the other side of Europe. Going back to the Old Continent, however, meant more than just the institutional outcome it would have had later. It was a matter of liberation from a heavy and suffocating past. The East and the West represented two different kinds of society, and the latter coincided in the eyes of the public opinion with economic prosperity, freedom and development. The liberalism of the western side of the world was opposed to the communism of the eastern hemisphere, as well as progress was opposed to underdevelopment and market economy was opposed to planned economy. In a sense, returning to Europe meant leaving behind a past in which Eastern Europe was “artificially kept in isolation from the outside world”[2]. The Czech-born writer Milan Kundera in 1984 described the divided Eastern and Western Europe as “a single entity anchored in ancient Greece and Judeo-Christian thought”[3]. He referred to a past marriage between the “two Europe”, heavily printed in the minds of the people, whose repeated fight against the Soviet rule is a proof of the willingness to preserve a rooted “westerness”[4].

The development of the EC/EU in the years after the beginning of the Cold War was silently witnessed by the Eastern neighbours, who started to identify Europe with the new institutional setting. Indeed, the Community before and the Union after became an extremely attractive alternative to the political framework they were living in. The EC/EU was an economic powerhouse, that was granting unprecedented growth to its members. In the beginning, the role of the prosperous entity, through which improve one’s economic performance was slightly hidden behind the sentimental and ideological idea of joining the Union to return to Europe. Later on, however, the EU began to be seen more and more as a crucial economic actor and less as the driver of a triumphal historical transformation for the entire continent. However, perspectives and dreams of future partnership started to come afloat at the beginning of the new Cold War, when, favoured by Gorbachev’s leadership, the Easterners were gifted with new freedoms and opportunities.

Next to the EU, after the demise of the USSR, NATO and the United States started to be considered as fundamental strategic partners to ensure protection and security in the region. Indeed, Washington came to embody the role of a shield, able to counterbalance the presence of a still powerful Russian neighbour. At the end of the Cold War, indeed, the countries of Central Eastern Europe were living in a security vacuum, encrusted between the instability to their East and South and the security community to their West[5]. As a consequence, the prospect of the protection offered to them by a dominant military superpower, like the US, came to cause always more positive reactions.

Brussels and Washington, hence, soon became the two main recipients of Central Eastern Europe’s needs and requests. An interesting trend in the relations between the East and the West is the decrease over time of the pro-European stances adopted by the former communist countries, who instead changed their opinion on NATO. From a non-necessary entity, given the death of the Soviet enemy, the North Atlantic Alliance became the only “existing collective defence organization in Europe”[6]and, for this reason, in the 1990s it started to charm the most insecure countries in Europe. Atlanticism, therefore, grew sensitively in the region and intertwined with the repeated misunderstandings between the EU and those that from 1994 on started to call for membership. Notwithstanding the unavoidable differences between NATO and the EU, how the two organizations behaved vis-à-vis the requests of these countries, contributed to increase the regional support for Washington and to decrease the regional support for Brussels.

How the EU enlargement process to the ten Central Eastern European countries (CEECs) unfolded has negatively affected the proactive and pro-European approach these countries demonstrated right after the end of the Cold War divide. The lack of unity among the member states and the unheard appeals for more guarantees and reassurances were only two of the criticalities experienced by the Union, that slowly moved the applicants away from Brussels and nearer to Washington. Indeed, a crucial role, in the almost fifteen years that led to the 2004 accession of new members in the EU, has been that of the US. As previously stated, Washington’s behaviour towards Eastern Europe helped to reshape the way the Easterners looked at the other side of the Atlantic.

Washington’s effort in the 1981 Polish crisis helped the revolutionary Solidarity to end the Communist regime in Poland and to pose the basis for the overcoming of the Soviet rule in the region at large. Warsaw’s“pro-American leadership elite”[7]reinforced at the eve of the 1989 free elections in the country and characterized the country’s politics for the years to come.

From this moment on, the already favourable opinion Warsaw had about the US, grew exponentially to reach the apex in what Marcin Zaborowski and Kerry Longhurst defined “instinctive Atlanticism”[8]. Consequently, America and NATO started to be seen as a more accountable means to return to Europe. This feeling has been generally confirmed after the end of the Cold War divide, when East Germany was invited to join the EU right after the end of the Communist rule, leaving the rest of the Easterners out and busy dealing with a renewed sense of betrayal. Moreover, the 1990s wars in the Balkans made it clear to the candidate countries that the EU could not have been the means to protect themselves from the fragility of the surrounding environment. NATO and the US were confirmed as the fundamental actors in the Easterners’ return to Europe. A return to Europe that officially began in 1994, when the first applications for EU membership arrived in Brussels and the US President Bill Clinton decided that NATO should have gone out of area to avoid going out of business. From this moment on, the way in which the two sides of the Atlantic dealt with the Central Eastern partners would have influenced the outcome of this long journey. As soon as 1999, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became members of NATO and saw their “westerness” confirmed through the Atlantic framework. EU membership, on the contrary, was finally achieved only five years after and followed a series of deferrals.


The limits encountered in the eastward enlargement are strictly linked with the causes of the so-called enlargement fatigue, that is now negatively affecting the negotiations with the other set of Eastern countries, the Western Balkans. Assessing the path to the 2004 accession of new members in the Union, significant limits and obstacles to the process can be identified. Of course one of the biggest challenges has been the need for the Union to reform its internal architecture, to allow the institution to survive to the entrance of more than ten new members in less than five years. This process of reform has slowed down the path to enlargement, compared to what the CEECs had in mind when they first started to call for tighter relations with the EC/EU. Indeed, another essential limit of the eastward enlargement has been the different perceptions that the applicant states and the EU had regarding the enlargement process itself. Being driven by euphoria and sentimentalism, the CEECs expected from the EU something that it was not ready to give them, nor it was supposed to furnish. As a consequence, the Union started to be seen increasingly as an economic highway to prosperity and growth. In a sense, for these countries, Brussels lost the meaning it had for the founding countries. Moreover, the different perspective on the enlargement process translated into a different envisioned membership. The CEECs did not expect the Union to behave as a foster mother, having control on their own decisions. After the experiences of the Soviet rule and the previous lack of independence, the Easterners were looking forward to a membership in which their sovereignty would have been respected and protected. However, the way the French President Chirac reacted to the 2002 decision to side Washington in the war against terrorism showed what the CEECs did not want from the EU. Indeed, Chirac’s paternalistical reproach seemed to cover the willingness of the European leaders to shape the Easterners’ decisions in foreign policy. The pressure exerted by Brussels against the soon-to-be members was defined as intolerable by the CEECs and by their champions in the Union.

At the eve of the enlargement, the candidates worried about the chance to be accepted in the Union in a lower position compared to the rest of the members. The way in which Brussels dealt with its counterparts allowed fears to grow among them. Once again, these countries had to face the prospect of a submission to a stronger entity and, without surprise, this led to a quest for more reassurances from the international chessboard. Indeed, the East’s turn to Washington is easily reconnectable to the Easterners’ need to find a stable and reliable partner in the West, that they could not find in Brussels.

The troubled relations with the Union, moreover, led to an uncomplete externalization of the European solidarity. How the Central Eastern Europeans are dealing with the present challenges conceals a lack of solidarity with the rest of Europe. The CEECs, however, cannot be the only one to blame for such an outcome. Indeed, the EU, in the years that led to the enlargement, allowed for the dipartite of the sentimental drive that firstly convinced the Easterners that the Union was an essential actor in their re-entry in Europe. The EC/EU was apparently not prepared to welcome the euphoric pressure exerted by the CEECs to be inserted in the Community as soon as possible[9].

All these elements, hence, were added to a changing environment for the transatlantic relations and with a restored image of Washington in the eyes of the Easterners. Indeed, as Europe as a whole clashed with the US on more than one issue, Eastern Europe found in the Americans the good friends they were looking for. Even today, this is visible in the positive exchanges between the two.

However, the enlargement to these countries had important positive consequences that must be taken into account. Indeed, economic growth has shaped the last fifteen years of these countries’ life. As reported by the European Commission, the CEECs are the fastest growing countries in the EU, opposed to a slower core. Moreover, as in the 1981/1986 enlargement to Greece, Spain and Portugal, the expansion of the Union helped the consolidation of democratic values and the transition to an open political system. Indeed, the role of the EU in this swift process is recognised even by the most critic experts and leaders coming from the involved countries.

However, the recent developments in the domestic policies of countries like Poland and Hungary have worried the international community. Some suggest the need to introduce a post-membership conditionality, to control the behaviour of the member states and to avoid anti-democratic deviances in an institution born out of the dust of an undemocratic Europe.

The return to Europe cost the CEECs time, energies and years of struggles, under the rule of an illiberal power. The EU and the US welcomed the efforts of these countries and opened the doors to a future of democracy and prosperity. The triangle relationship between Eastern Europe, Western Europe and America has created consequences both for the way the EU enlargement process developed and for the way the Easterners approached their role in the transatlantic spectrum. After almost thirty years from the fall of the Berlin Wall, Washington has become an essential partner for the side of Europe that saw the birth of the XX Century’s most sworn enemies of the world envisioned by the Americans. In this setting, the EU needs to deal with the shortcomings of the relationship it has developed with its Eastern members, in a critical moment for the transatlantic relations at large.

[1]Václav Havel, Speech in the Polish Parliament, Warsaw, 25 January 1990.

[2]Alison O’Connor and Martha Kearns, “Use this historic chance, leaders implore”, Dublin,, 16 October 2002.

[3]Milan Kundera, “The tragedy of central Europe”, The New York Review of Books, 31, 007, Apr 26, 1984, pg. 33.


[5]Edward Cottey, East-Central Europe after the Cold War Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary in Search of Security, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995).

[6]Thomas S. Szayna and Ronald D. Asmus, “German and Polish views of the Partnership for Peace”, RAND Corporation, 1995.

[7]Report, “A Synthesis of the Domestic Situation and the West’s Activity”, Warsaw, Polish Government, August 28, 1987, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Personal papers of Andrzej Paczkowski.

[8]Kerry Longhurst and Marcin Zaborowski, The New Atlanticist: Poland’s Foreign and Security Policy Priorities (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2007).

[9]Danica Fink Hafner, “Dilemas in managing the expanding EU: the EU and applicant states’ points of view”, Journal of European Public Policy, 1999, 6:5, pp. 783-801.

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