On Wednesday, the European Union celebrates the 15th anniversary of the largest enlargement of its history, but in a non-festive context, since it is on the verge of, for the first time, a reduction, with the exit from the United Kingdom.
On the occasion of the great enlargement of May 1, 2004, 10 new countries, including central and eastern Europe – Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Czech Republic – Malta and Cyprus – is thus inevitably overshadowed by ‘Brexit’, which will lead to the EU slimming down from 28 to 27 Member States, with no further signatures coming in the near future.
The 15-year enlargement, also known as ‘big bang’, because of its size and impact, since the Union went from 15 to 25 Member States at the time, was also followed by the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and of Croatia, which became the last country to join the European bloc in 2013, which then decided to put a brake on the enlargement process, which was also much to blame for the economic and financial crisis that had hit Europe with violence. priorities.
A great long-time enthusiast of the enlargement process, the current President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, upon taking office in 2014, warned that the Union would not expand further during its mandate, and in the coming prospect of new countries, although there are several candidates.
Following the accession in 2007 of Romania and Bulgaria – countries which, according to many, were not effectively prepared to join the European Union and still await entry into the Schengen area for free movement – the rules for accession have also been made stricter, with the European Commission “building on the lessons learned from the past”, placing greater emphasis on criteria such as the rule of law, fundamental rights, consolidation of democratic institutions, good neighborliness and economic governance, the entry of countries on the waiting list.
In interviews with several East European media, published today, on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the ‘big bang’ enlargement, Juncker takes a positive view of the entry of the 10 countries in 2004, noting the carried out and verified economic growth.
“I did not for a second regret the decision to simultaneously put 10 countries in the heart of Europe. I always believed that this was a great moment and a unique opportunity that history offered us,” he said, underscoring what this enlargement represented in terms of “reconciliation of the geography and history “of the European continent.
However, enlargement has already proved to be complex on several occasions, the most obvious of which is the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016, which left the bare divisions between the West and the East, with the formation of the “Visegrad Group” Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which rejected quotas for the redistribution of refugees, who have taken positions against the migration policies advocated by Brussels and where populism has been gaining momentum.
With “iron arms” underway with Poland and Hungary due to what the European Commission classifies as violations of the rule of law in these countries, Jean-Claude Juncker, questioned on whether the “Visegrad countries” could join the EU today, admits that he does not know how to respond, but prefers to emphasize his conviction that what is happening today can only be part of a “political cycle” and that “these uncertainties will no longer exist in a few years,” which he hopes will happen, since “ is a fundamental pillar of the European system “.
With the UK at the EU’s exit door, following the 2016 referendum – the new target date for Brexit is 31 October – and the EU about to return to 27 (the number had between 2007 and 2013, until Croatia’s accession), seven countries are on the waiting list to join the “club”, but one of them, Turkey, seems to have its process more than “frozen” since 2016 .
“With great aspirations to join the EU are the countries of the Western Balkans, with the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro being the closest alliance seems to meet all the requirements for accession, which could occur by 2025, her sisters “Slovenia and Croatia.
The list is now renamed Northern Macedonia, the third country with the most advanced application process, and only later Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and, finally, Kosovo, a country that is not even recognized by all the current states Member States.
But in the year in which the EU is celebrating the 15th year of a large-scale enlargement that will be unparalleled in history, the great change that Europe is about to see is in the opposite direction, which many fear may be the beginning of a “European disintegration“, with the departure of the United Kingdom, one of its “heavyweights“, even if it is not one of the founding countries of a European Union in full moment introspective and reflection on the way forward.