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20 years after the enlargement Big Bang: successful convergence in an era of division

In this month's press review, we examine the European press's reflections on the anniversary of the EU's largest expansion to date, twenty years on.

On 1st May 2004, the European Union undertook its most substantial expansion yet. Dubbed the “Big Bang,” this enlargement saw the EU’s cosy club of 15 predominantly Western and Southern European nations swell by ten new members. Eight of these – Czech RepublicEstoniaLatviaLithuaniaHungaryPolandSlovakia, and Slovenia – had formerly chafed under the Soviet yoke. They were joined by Malta and Cyprus, which were not part of the Eastern bloc.

Writing from Switzerland in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Nikolai Thelitz and Nina Belz note that the new entrants to the European Union harboured hopes of economic prosperity and political and social advancement, while old members in Western Europe fretted over migration, wage deflation, and the fiscal demands of broader integration. Helga Schmidt, reporting for German news platform Tagesschau from Brussels, observes that some Western fears have materialised: the EU’s cohesion policy, aimed at uplifting its less affluent regions, has redirected funds predominantly eastwards over the past two decades, at the expense of the southern states. Despite these shifts, the eastward enlargement is now widely viewed as a triumph for all involved.

Writing for the same news outlet, Jenni Rieger notes that Germany now hosts approximately 820,000 workers from countries that joined the EU in its eastward expansion. Contrary to gloomy forecasts, the influx of workers from these new EU member states did not displace German workers. Instead, it helped to bridge significant gaps in the labour market, with migrants primarily employed in sectors that are less attractive to local workers due to low wages or unappealing work conditions. 

For German firms, the EU’s expansion has not only provided a new pool of labour but also opened up new markets, facilitating expansion as trade barriers fell. However, rising living standards and significant wage growth in some sectors in Eastern European EU countries have made Germany less attractive for immigration than before. Nowadays, new workers no longer flock to Germany; instead, there is a trend of migrants staying for a few years before returning home. Economically, the potential for future growth in this area is likely to stagnate in the coming years.

In a similarly optimistic tone, Gerald Schubert reflects on the “Big Bang” in his commentary for Der Standard, from neighbouring Austria. He argues that the enlargement has brought considerable economic benefits, particularly to Austria, and has gained renewed importance today amid Russia‘s forceful attempts to reclaim its former sphere of influence. Schubert contends that welcoming Central and Eastern European democracies into the EU – a union founded not as a defence against external foes but as a safeguard against the internal demons that sparked the horrors of the Second World War – was both prescient and essential.

Writing from the geographically more distant Spain for El IndependienteAna Alonso notes that the 2004 EU entrants are beginning to outshine many longer-standing members. She spotlights Poland, which is not only catching up with Spain in economic development but also surpassing it in political influence within Europe. Over two decades of EU membership, Poland has boosted its GDP by 40%, overtaken Portugal in GDP per capita, and is now challenging Spain, buoyed by lower unemployment and robust growth rates. Despite the economic shocks from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and hosting nearly a million refugees, Poland’s economic outlook remains upbeat. Furthermore, Poland is carving out a significant political niche in response to Russian hostilities. Alonso suggests that for Spain to maintain its relevance in the EU, it should recognise Poland as a pivotal player.

In an article for Hrot magazineMiroslav Zámečník, a Czech economist, lauds Poland’s remarkable progress over the past two decades. Starting from a disadvantaged position, Poland has astutely utilised EU funds to enhance its infrastructure, laying down thousands of kilometres of motorways. In contrast, the Czech Republic has seen a proliferation of lookout towers rather than substantive infrastructural advances. Similarly, writing in Hospodářské noviny, economist Petr J. Kalaš notes that while the Czech Republic leads the Visegrad Four with a standard of living at 90% of the EU average, its growth has been modest, increasing by just 10% over 20 years. Poland, on the other hand, has seen a dramatic 40% rise in living standards, underscoring its effective use of EU integration benefits.

“From a black hole to a tiger running out of breath”: These are the words Katarína Runnová uses to encapsulate Slovakia’s 20 years of EU membership on the news portal Following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, Slovakia grappled with severe economic and political challenges. However, the decade following its EU accession witnessed a golden era, with economic reforms and a post-accession boom earning it the moniker “the Tatra Tiger.”

Yet, the growth momentum driven by cheap labour and technology imports has since waned, and no new economic model is on the horizon. According to Pravda, citing Euractiv analyst Barbara Zmušková, the only viable path forward is to reinforce the core principle that greater prosperity stems from a unified single market. This includes integrating previously separate markets such as financial, energy, and telecommunications. For Slovakia, where anti-Brussels sentiment is on the rise, it is crucial for its citizens to recognise that the EU countries, which have contributed billions of euros over the past two decades, do not harbour ill intentions.

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Robert Fico’s Assassination Attempt: A Turning Point for the Country’s Future
Matúš Kostolný | Denník N | May 16 | SK

According to Matúš Kostolný, editor-in-chief of Denník N, the assassination attempt on Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico signifies the end of Slovakia’s post-1989 democratic era. Although often marked by vulgarity, political battles in Slovakia have been predominantly verbal, occasionally even intellectual. Kostolný argues that the assassination of politicians is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. He recalls that this is not Slovakia’s first political murder; the killing of journalist Ján Kuciak in 2018 serves as a grim precedent. Historical and global evidence suggests that societal divisions and verbal hostilities can escalate into physical violence. The attack on Prime Minister Fico, Kostolný asserts, is a critical juncture. It marks the end of an era of rhetorical skirmishes and heralds a decisive moment for Slovakia. Now, the nation must choose whether it aligns with the civilised, democratic West—where crimes are adjudicated in courts rather than through bloodshed.

Pavel Bartůšek

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