Scrutinizing the First Ten Years of EU Membership

April 24, 2014

CEU hosted the two-day “10 years in the EU – Taking Stock and Assessing Prospects” conference on April 14-15. As CEU President and Rector John Shattuck pointed out in his opening remarks, the conference was about both looking back on the past 10 years and looking forward to the future of European integration. The conference was an opportunity “to evaluate expectations, and to discuss how we got from naive EU optimism to current EU skepticism,” noted Jan Niklas Engels, director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the institutional co-sponsor of the event.

Benefits and Costs of EU Membership

The first panel of the conference discussed the benefits and costs of EU membership. Tamas Szucs, head of Representation of the European Commission in Hungary talked about how Hungary has lost its role as a forerunner in the region in the past 10 years, and how the recent crisis triggered a halt in the financial, economic, and social development in the new member states. “Public trust in the EU must be regained,” he said, adding “there’s no single magic recipe for that.” Although the current events in Ukraine “reminded us how fragile democracy is,” they also showed what an important role the Visegrad Four countries have in how the EU responds to Russia’s new ambitions. This reminder, Szucs said, urged a new definition of Europe, of what unites all Europeans. The European Commission’s “New Narrative for Europe” project aimed to create such a definition, and a report published in March concluded that “Europe is both a state of mind and political body.”

Director of CEU’s Center for EU Enlargement Studies Peter Balazs gave a personal account of the past 10 years

CENS Director Peter Balazs discusses the past 10 years of EU membership for the 2004 accession countries. Image credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest

as the Government Representative of Hungary in the European Convention drafting the Constitutional Treaty, the core of the Lisbon Treaty. He recalled how at his first hearing as EU Commissioner, that the applications of Hungary and Poland were stalled by the Balkan wars and the NATO enlargement, and compared the euphoria of May 1, 2004 to that of the demolition of the Iron Curtain. Discussing the promise of the next 10 years, he predicted that “peace and prosperity would assure growth.”

Balazs Mosonyi, former head of the Managing Authority for Regional Development in Hungary talked about the pros and cons of EU-funded developments in Hungary. “EU funds are the single biggest non-repayable transfers that new member states in the Central Eastern European region have ever received. Until 2013 funding amounted to 3-4 percent of the CEE’s countries’ GDP annually, and 2.7 percent after 2014,” he said. Mosonyi demonstrated how much these countries depend on EU funds, and how the way the EU money is spent has become a crucial issue. He pointed out that while Hungary absorbs the funds well, the country needs to develop long and mid-term strategies, good practice of public procurement and tendering, and a broad partnership with a wide range of actors; he noted that the country needs to apply a management approach and improve its institutional quality.

Kristina Vida discusses how the V4 countries have fared in their first 10 years of EU membership. Image credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest

The experiences of the Visegrad Four (V4) countries in the first 10 years of EU membership was the focus of Krisztina Vida's talk. A senior research fellow at Centre for Economic and Regional Studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Vida analyzed the institutional integration, competitiveness, and economic progress of the V4 compared to both the European average and to each other. She concluded that the successful institutional and legal adaptation of the EU framework increased the role of the V4. Investment in the region is sluggish, although more harmonious growth rates are on the horizon. Vida welcomed the gradual fiscal stabilization and the recent promising monetary trends in the region. She predicted a perceivable convergence to EU averages and to each other, and these converging trends to strengthen the Visegrad Group inside and outside the EU. 

Slovakia is the only V4 country that has the euro as their official currency. Tomas Strazay, senior research fellow at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, shared how Slovakia has managed that, despite former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright referring to the country as a “black hole.” He also addressed how the question of the enhancement of the EFC (Economic and Financial Committee) led to the fall of the Slovak government a mere two years later. “A poor Slovak contributing to a Greek’s pension was a strong image,” he summarized. He also noted that although the EU as an idea enjoys great support in Slovakia, the country has the lowest participation rate in Europe (below 20%) in European Parliament elections.

CASE Fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Research Daniel Daianu talked about “Returning Tremors in Emerging Markets.” He explained the present macroeconomic situation in the region, noting that private indebtedness matters just as much as public debt, and touched upon how policies respond to the crisis. He drew attention to the return of geopolitics, warning that what’s happening in Ukraine “can bring out the fractures in Europe.”

Social Changes and Migration

Laszlo Andor, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion discusses migration of EU workers. Image credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest

The second panel of the conference addressed social changes and migration within the EU. Bela Galgoczi, senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute emphasized that the freedom of movement for workers is an EU value but that it's now being challenged. Recent labor movements have been relatively sudden (compared to a decade ago) and they connect regions with substantial income gaps. In fact, EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion Laszlo Andor noted that nearly half of European migrant workers come from “new” EU member states (those that joined in the last decade) and of that number, half come from Romania and Bulgaria, two of the EU's poorest countries. The financial crisis has exacerbated the issues in both countries from where workers emigrate and so-called “recipient” countries. Large numbers of migrant workers are unemployed and are not working in jobs that match their skill sets. Galgoczi noted that 82 percent of EU 8 (the countries that joined the EU in 2004) migrants have blue collar jobs, despite the fact that two-thirds of these workers have university degrees. “Even if they earn more in their blue collar job than they would earn in their field in their own country, this is not an efficient use of people's skills,” he said.

Roderick Parkes and Bela Galgoczi discuss migrant workers in the EU. Image credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest

Roderick Parkes, the EU program coordinator for the Polish Institute of International Affairs, noted the rampant negative opinion that migration has garnered. “In Western Europe – especially the UK – migrant mobility is connected to welfare in a bad way – meaning 'mobility tourism,'” he said. “The British government perceived these people [migrant workers] as the low end of the labor market – unskilled – and this becomes, to a degree, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The other mistake is that only receiving countries have a problem, not sending countries.” In Poland, Parkes explained, there is deep frustration with the UK regarding the new proposed restrictions such as quotas that would reduce family benefits for children/family of migrant workers living outside the UK (in their home country).

Minister for European and International Affairs in Baden-Wurttemberg Peter Friedrich opened the second day of the conference with his keynote speech addressing Euro-skepticism. “I'm more worried about the Euro-fatigue than the right-wing movements – it's more kind of pessimism or inactivity,” he said. “It's a challenge but an opportunity for pro-European political discussions. We shouldn't be surprised after three years of EU crisis that we have to re-legitimate the idea of European integration.” He also emphasized the importance of Europeans feeling that their votes are making a difference.

From Euro-optimism to Euro-skepticism?

The subsequent panel also focused on Euro-skepticism as well as Euro-optimism. Kai-Olaf Lang, research fellow at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, broke down Euro-skeptics into two categories: hard and soft Euro-skeptics. The first category he calls “rejectionists” who dogmatically reject the supranational organization and think the EU is evil. “The 'reformists,' who are more modest, are not questioning the necessity of some sort of cooperation but want to act against the slippery slope of closer integration,” he said. Lang believes the latter are the more dynamic and successful in that they have exported their ideas to the political mainstream in many countries.

Audience members listen to panelists discussing the first 10 years in the EU for the countries that joined in 2004. Image credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest

Csaba Toth, director of strategy for the Republikon Institute, has conducted surveys of European attitudes toward the EU. In general, he found that the younger you are, the more pro-Europe you are (with the exception of Slovakians). He noted that there is rising Euro-skepticism in Hungary and that people are following party lines regarding their attitude toward the EU. “At the end of the day, the arguments on nationalist side will be stronger and louder and that can be seen from some of the recent election results,” he said.

Echoing other panelists' comments on the effects that the financial crisis has had on Europe and EU integration, Alina Bargaoanu, rector of the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, noted that new member countries deep in debt are more likely to have high percentages of mistrust in the EU and its institutions. For example, her research shows that 67 percent in Cyprus favor exiting the eurozone and forming stronger ties with Russia. In Spain, 72 percent of respondents tend not to trust the EU. Bargaoanu did focused research on Romania and found overall declining levels of trust there and different attitudes depending on whether you are an elite or a populist. Elitists strongly support the EU even though they acknowledge a lack of leadership and long-term vision.

The Future of the European Union

The last panel of the conference discussed the future of the European Union. Zoltan Pogatsa, professor at the Faculty of Economy and Business at the University of Western Hungary revisited the topic of Euro-skepticism, and drew the gloomy conclusion that there are no basic values of European integration. He argued that “people didn’t get what they wanted from the EU, so now the majority silently ignores the EU.”

Ernst Hillebrand, head of the International Policy Analysis Unit at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung warned that there was a basic difference in the approach of integration in Western and Central/ Eastern Europe. In the West it was considered as a threat of having a less democratic system than in the past 150 years, whereas in CEE it was seen as a promise of a new, less corrupt governmental structure. He discussed the concept of the European “super state,” and, like his colleagues throughout the conference, stressed the importance of “activating the feeling that we’re part of a community” in order to create a strong Europe.

Krisztina Arato, associate professor at Eotvos Lorand University argued with Pogatsa’s previous comments

Panelist Krisztina Arato gives possible scenarios for the future of the EU. Image credit: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest

regarding the (ir)relevance of the EU, and offered three possible future scenarios for the Union: going back to being an economic community; creating a federal Europe; and “consolidating the results,” or preserving what we have now.

Following a Q&A session, Balazs concluded the conference by stressing that the EU is indeed relevant, since “what the EU will be like in 2024 matters in our life.” The conference was sponsored by CEU's Center for EU Enlargement Studies. To view the full program, visit: or see attachment.