EU enlargement
20 Years after EU's Big Bang Enlargement: Milestones, Missteps, and the Road Ahead

A worker removes the remains of an iron border fence dating back to the times of the Cold War at the German-Czech border in Bayerisch Eisenstein, southern Germany, Saturday, May 1, 2004, while a crowd of German and Czech people celebrates the expansion of the European Union at midnight.

A worker removes the remains of an iron border fence dating back to the times of the Cold War at the German-Czech border in Bayerisch Eisenstein, southern Germany, Saturday, May 1, 2004, while a crowd of German and Czech people celebrates the expansion of the European Union at midnight.


On the occasion of 20 years of EU’s largest enlargement, we invited Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation European Dialogue Jules Maaten and Project Director for Central Europe and the Baltic States Lars-André Richter, for a short interview.

FNF: In May 2024, the EU celebrates the 20th anniversary of the “Big Bang Enlargement”: On 1 May 2004, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia joined the EU. Looking back at the “Big Bang Enlargement”, what do you see as the most significant achievements in terms of fostering peace, stability, and cooperation among European nations?

Jules Maaten: The foremost goal of the Big Bang Enlargement was to secure freedom, peace, a social market economy and democracy in the countries that had just escaped from decades of stifling communism. In this sense overall the enlargement has been a resounding success. Today we think that it is obvious that these countries would follow what had long been the norm in Western Europe. But at the time this was not so sure. The negotiation process was an important tool to promote reforms in the applicant countries. Now we can no longer imagine a European Union without these countries. That is not to say that there are no issues and that there are no lessons to be learned. For example, Cyprus is still a divided island. And the Rule of Law and even Liberal Democracy are weak, to say the least in some countries, especially Viktor Orban’s Hungary. We have seen that the EU governments are hardly willing to hold their fellow governments to account. And the European Commission should be the guardian of the EU Treaties but has allowed itself to be blackmailed by Viktor Orban, and also elsewhere could have been much more forceful in acting against corruption  -  by the way not only in the new member states. In that sense, the European Commission has let down the citizens who were counting on the EU to promote the Rule of Law. The European Parliament, with the Liberals at the front, has consistently pointed out these problems, but to no avail.

FNF: Seven of the ten countries that joined the EU in 2004 were part of the Eastern bloc. By joining the EU, a new era of integration and solidarity across the continent began. How has the enlargement impacted the development of these countries as well as the EU over the past twenty years?

Lars-André Richter: The term "Eastern bloc" still evokes a sense of vastness, like a monotonous land mass without social or cultural nuances. Yet after the Second World War, the Soviet Union attempted to homogenize countries in Central and Eastern Europe, that could hardly have been more different in terms of their historical character. Even the Marxist-Leninist or socialist control exerted by Moscow over states such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia for over forty years could not fundamentally change this. The starting conditions after 1989 and after 2004, the year of the EU's enlargement, were correspondingly different. The examples of Estonia and Poland illustrate this very well. Estonia was part of the Soviet Union. Its Lutheran character was not as strong as the Catholic character in Poland. The country was small and had roughly the same population as Munich. The new beginning was easy, like a reinvention. Today, the country is a role model in terms of digitalisation, and not just in the EU. Poland, meanwhile, is roughly as big as Spain. Two hearts beat in its chest. The polarisation is very plastic: on the one hand, the euphoria for freedom in the western part of the country and the urban centres, and on the other, the traditionalist, national conservative, and clearly more church-bound regions in the east. This division can also be seen again in the Sejm elections at the end of 2023. After all, the period before 1989 is perceived across party lines as subjugation, just like in Estonia. Unlike Germany, Russia has never taken a self-critical look at its history - on the contrary. Wariness of Moscow has therefore persisted in many of the former Soviet satellite states over the past thirty years. They were immune to any form of romanticising Russia. As we can see today: quite rightly so.


FNF: Europe is facing threats, both externally and internally: the geopolitical situation in the world is very different from twenty years ago and there are new geopolitical challenges. At the same time, internally, the EU is experiencing a rise of populism across its Member States, which is threatening its core values. In light of these developments, how important is it for the EU to continue expanding and deepening its integration to maintain its relevance and influence on the global stage?

Lars-André Richter: Populism is initially a global phenomenon, unfortunately. The soil on which it thrives is well known - fear of loss and decline, constant stress as a result of a concentration of political, economic and ecological crises that are very well illuminated by the media, weariness in the face of complicated parliamentary and constitutional decision-making processes. In many former Eastern bloc countries - including in East Germany - populists of all ideological persuasions are using another scapegoat: Brussels, the capital of an alleged Soviet Union 2.0. Talk of the EUdSSR is of course beneath contempt but takes hold. According to the core of the anti-EU propaganda, freedom was not fought in 1989 only to be pushed into an acid pool of a supra-nationalist, politically hypercorrect and regulation-mad Brussels apparatus half a generation later. Here too, standing up to this is a hard job. Counter-narratives only help to a limited extent. We need to create positive political experiences at local level. The solution lies in strengthening the principle of subsidiarity. That sounds trite and at the same time terribly academic. But people who realise that they are needed locally and can make a difference, will also be prepared to accept that the complexity at national or even European level is not an attempt by an elite to make the masses compliant and exploit them. They will be more willing to understand that a continental community such as the EU is needed in order to be taken seriously in the face of the authoritarian, politically, economically and militarily increasingly autocratic world power China.


Jules Maaten: For the EU it is now essential to strengthen its role as a beacon for Liberal Democracy and the Rule of Law, for an innovative economy and an open society. Not only is this a necessity to make further enlargement possible, but it is also vital for its survival in an increasingly insecure world. Populism has a foot in the door, mainly because the EU and its member states seem to be unsure of where to go, and unsure of how to deal with the current global pressures. But it isn’t rocket science. The European way of life wields a lot of attraction, and that is what we must strengthen and promote. Nobody is trying to find a refuge in Russia or China. It is Europe the people come to. There must be a good reason for that, and it is not just economic.

FNF: Looking ahead to the future, how do you see the prospects for further enlargement, particularly regarding (potential) candidate countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe? What steps can the EU take to encourage and facilitate the accession process for these nations while maintaining the integrity of EU values and standards?

Jules Maaten: Undoubtedly in this time of competition between political systems, it is good for the European Union if it rapidly strengthens its relations with the countries on its borders and thus boosts the dimension of its stable democratic legal order. Of course, the ideal scenario is for these countries to join as member states. We do not need another Big Bang, but we do need to make substantial progress soon, even if this isn’t easy. In many cases, a step-by-step approach, in which countries gradually increase their ties with the Union in areas where they have already made good progress, will be the easiest way forward. And in other cases where the applicants have made a special effort, the process can be more rapid. At the same time, it is crucial that the Union strengthens its internal democratic rule-based decision-making and checks and balances. One does not go without the other. Therefore, the enlargement process would in parallel oblige the EU to get its own house in order. At the end of the day, we would all be winners.

FNF: Europa steht vor Bedrohungen, sowohl von außen als auch von innen: Die geopolitische Situation in der Welt unterscheidet sich sehr von der vor zwanzig Jahren, und es gibt neue geopolitische Herausforderungen. Gleichzeitig erlebt die EU einen Aufstieg des Populismus in ihren Mitgliedstaaten, der ihre Kernwerte bedroht. Angesichts dieser Entwicklungen, wie wichtig ist es für die EU, ihre Erweiterung und Vertiefung der Integration fortzusetzen, um ihre Relevanz und ihren Einfluss auf der globalen Bühne aufrechtzuerhalten?

Lars-André Richter: Populismus ist zunächst ein globales Phänomen, bedauerlicherweise. Der Humus, auf dem er gedeiht, ist hinlänglich bekannt: Verlust- und Abstiegsängste, der Dauerstress infolge einer Verdichtung medial minuziös ausgeleuchteter politischer, wirtschaftlicher und ökologischer Krisen, der Überdruss im Angesicht komplizierter parlamentarischer und rechtsstaatlicher Entscheidungsfindungsprozesse. In vielen ehemaligen Ostblockstaaten – auch in Ostdeutschland – bedienen die Populisten jedweder weltanschaulicher Couleur ein weiteres Feindbild: Brüssel, die Hauptstadt einer vorgeblichen Sowjetunion 2.0. Die Rede von der EUdSSR ist natürlich verwerflich, aber sie verfängt. Man habe, so der Kern der Anti-EU-Propaganda, 1989 nicht für die Freiheit gekämpft, nur um sich eine halbe Generation später in das Säurebecken des supranationalistischen, politisch hyperkorrekten und verregelungswütigen Brüsseler Apparats stoßen zu lassen. Auch hier gegenzuhalten, heißt dicke Bretter bohren. Gegennarrative helfen dabei nur bedingt. Man muss positive politische Erfahrungsräume schaffen. Und zwar auf kommunaler Ebene. Die Lösung liegt ganz urliberal in der Stärkung des Subsidiaritätsprinzip. Das klingt abgedroschen und gleichzeitig furchtbar akademisch. Aber wer merkt, dass er vor Ort gebraucht wird und etwas verändern kann, der wird auch bereit sein zu akzeptieren, dass die Komplexität auf nationaler oder gar europäischer Ebene nicht etwa der Versuch einer durchtriebenen Elite ist, die Massen gefügig zu machen und auszubeuten, der wird eher bereit sein zu verstehen, dass es eine kontinentale Gemeinschaft wie die EU braucht, um gegenüber der autoritären, politisch, wirtschaftlich und militärisch immer selbstherrlicher auftretenden Weltmacht China noch ernstgenommen zu werden.

Jules Maaten: Für die EU ist es jetzt unerlässlich, ihre Rolle als Leuchtturm für liberale Demokratie und Rechtsstaatlichkeit, für eine innovative Wirtschaft und eine offene Gesellschaft zu stärken. Dies ist nicht nur eine Notwendigkeit, um eine weitere Erweiterung möglich zu machen, sondern auch entscheidend für ihr Überleben in einer zunehmend unsicheren Welt. Der Populismus hat einen Fuß in der Tür, hauptsächlich, weil die EU und ihre Mitgliedstaaten unsicher zu sein scheinen, wohin es gehen soll, und wie sie mit den aktuellen globalen Druck umgehen sollen. Aber das ist keine Raketenwissenschaft. Die europäische Lebensweise übt eine große Anziehungskraft aus, und das ist es, was wir stärken und fördern müssen. Niemand versucht Zuflucht in Russland oder China zu finden. Die Menschen kommen nach Europa. Es muss einen guten Grund dafür geben und der ist nicht nur wirtschaftlich.

FNF: Wie sehen Sie die Aussichten für eine weitere Erweiterung, insbesondere in Bezug auf (potenzielle) Kandidatenländer auf dem Westbalkan und in Osteuropa? Welche Schritte kann die EU unternehmen, um den Beitrittsprozess für diese Länder zu fördern und zu erleichtern, während die Integrität der EU-Werte und -Standards gewahrt wird?

Jules Maaten: In dieser Zeit des Wettbewerbs zwischen politischen Systemen ist es für die Europäische Union zweifellos gut, wenn sie ihre Beziehungen zu den Ländern an ihren Grenzen schnell stärkt und damit die Dimension ihrer stabilen demokratischen Rechtsordnung ausbaut. Natürlich ist das ideale Szenario, dass diese Länder als Mitgliedstaaten beitreten. Wir brauchen keinen weiteren „Big Bang“, aber wir müssen bald substanzielle Fortschritte machen, auch wenn das nicht einfach ist. In vielen Fällen wird ein schrittweiser Ansatz, bei dem Länder (Staaten) ihre Bindungen an die EU  in Bereichen, in denen sie bereits gute Fortschritte gemacht haben, allmählich ausbauen, der einfachste Weg sein. Und in anderen Fällen, in denen die Bewerber besondere Anstrengungen unternommen haben, kann der Prozess schneller verlaufen. Gleichzeitig ist es entscheidend, dass die EU ihre interne demokratische, regelbasierte Entscheidungsfindung und Kontrollmechanismen stärkt. Das eine geht nicht ohne das andere. Daher würde der Erweiterungsprozess parallel die EU dazu verpflichten, ihr eigenes Haus in Ordnung zu bringen. Am Ende würden wir alle gewinnen.