The European Union and expansion to the East: aspects of accession, problems, and prospects for the future.

Author:Medvec, Stephen E.

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. But the EC/EU proved that it alone would determine how and when these states would join that organization. The frustration for the governments and the peoples of the Visegrad/CEFTA states lay in the fact that Brussels never set a firm date for accession until the Copenhagen Summit (2002), when the EU finally invited the aforementioned ten applicants to become members of that organization. (4)

The Visegrad Agreement served as a mechanism to encourage collective cooperation and integrative thinking. Like the European Free Trade Association, (5) the Visegrad Agreement served as a "training mechanism" for membership in the EU. The Visegrad Group had to deal with considerable obstacles to cooperation no matter what structures of cooperation were used. Aside from the historical-cultural and political-economic difficulties encountered in the transition from communism to democracy and the adoption of a market economy after the Cold War, specific economic obstacles had to be overcome to implement the Visegrad Agreement in each of the following areas: agriculture; the approach and pace of privatization; competition for foreign investment; automobile manufacturing; airline competition; and, environmental concerns. These economic difficulties reflect the ongoing debate between free trade and protectionism as practiced by certain state leaders not only within the Visegrad/CEFTA states, but also throughout the world of international commerce.

The Integration Process and Visegrad

The integration process of the EU can be difficult to understand. Today, there are twenty-seven EU member states of different cultures, traditions, and levels of economic development. Integration refers to the process whereby individual states relinquish some of their sovereign decision-making authority to central supranational organs. Leadership and cooperation are key factors in the success or failure of that process. Integration occurs through functional "spillover," or cooperation in one functional area of endeavor, which leads to cooperation in other more difficult areas. This "spillover" in functional areas of common interest requires a convergence of goals and expectations. The functional process of "spillover" occurs when political leaders shift their expectations, goals, and political orientation to a new center. The extent to which common markets and economic union must force overall political union is less certain. (6)

Integration occurs when regional interests supersede or transcend national orientations. During the 1990s, this regional orientation among the political leadership of the Visegrad/ CEFTA states, initially the Hungarians and primarily the Czechs under former prime minister and current President Vaclav Klaus, was not always evident. Klaus viewed CEFTA as 'superfluous.' Poland, the leading advocate of the Visegrad process, did not set the agenda; instead, it promoted cooperation. In Slovakia, former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar strongly endorsed the Visegrad Agreement, but he faced strong opposition in the Slovak Parliament because of his strident anti-Hungarian policies, charges of corruption (e.g., the sale of Slovak state property to political cronies), and his generally pugnacious personality. (7)

The Visegrad Agreement was constantly modified to meet the concerns of specific interest groups, especially those in agriculture and large state-owned industrial enterprises, including labor unions. In contrast to the EU, the Visegrad Agreement never contained a central coordinating mechanism. Despite significant obstacles toward integration, the Visegrad process did work at least marginally, that is, member states understood that economic cooperation was a transitional and temporary prerequisite for accession to the EU, and, to a lesser extent, NATO. (8)

The Visegrad process and the formation of CEFTA were two of Central Europe's most encouraging undertakings after the fall of communism in 1989. The initiative to establish some degree of legally organized cooperation suggests that the post-Communist leaders of these states had already cleared an obstacle characteristic of the region in earlier times. They did not wait for advice and guidance from Washington, Moscow, or London; instead, they took the initiative to work together themselves. (9) Although the idea of cooperation surfaced among the Central European political activists, anti-Communist intellectuals, and writers such as Vaclav Havel and Jiri Dienstbier (both Czechs), Jan Carnogursky (Slovak), Adam Michnik (Poland), and Gygory Konrad (Hungary), serious obstacles to cooperation were soon evident. Under Communist rule, there was little genuine cooperation among the Visegrad/CEFTA states, as international ties within the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact focused on Soviet interests. After the 1989 revolution, each state evaluated every issue from its own perspective, often neglecting the potential advantages of long-term, mutually beneficial programs and cooperation. Cooperation among these states would have to overcome a number of problems, including the necessity of dealing with the Hungarian-minority population in Slovakia, which number nearly 600,000, and the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Dam complex on the Danube River, once a joint Czechoslovakian-Hungarian project. (10) In addition, unresolved Polish property disputes from the 1920s and 1930s on the Czechoslovak side of the border in the Cieszyn-Cesky Tesin region, as well as ongoing air and water pollution problems still plagued relations between Poland and Czechoslovakia (the Czech Republic after 1993). (11)

The EU and the United States found it more efficient to treat the Visegrad/CEFTA states as a unit rather than individually. The Slovak situation prior to the ouster of Meciar in 1994 troubled the West greatly, and, as a consequence, Slovakia was not seen in the same light as the Czech Republic, Hungary...

To continue reading

Request your trial