Photo: veni markovski (Flickr)
In 2004, the European Union experienced the largest expansion in its history–called the “Big Bang Enlargement” by some–with the accession of ten new member states, including eight former communist countries. Three years later, they were joined by Bulgaria and Romania.
The twenty-seven member EU now has a population of five hundred million and an economy slightly larger than the US.
The “Big Bang Enlargement” of 2004 was notable both for its scale and its symbolic importance. Ten new member states joined: Malta, Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia.
With the exception of Malta and Cyprus, all of these were former communist states. Most of them had seen their communist regimes collapse during the wave of demonstrations that shook Eastern Europe in 1989. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had only gained their independence in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The 2004 enlargement not only was the largest in the EU’s history in terms of the number of states, population (bringing in 74 million new citizens), and territory, it also symbolized the destruction of the historic divide between Eastern and Western Europe.
Still, many older members feared an influx of citizens from the new member states, even though the free movement of labor and capital is enshrined as a core principal of the EU’s common market. (Although some studies show that this movement has not been as significant as expected.)
The older states were allowed to impose transitional restrictions on the free movement of labor from the new member states. The enlargement also led to new policy cleavages and political alignments; for example, the Eastern European member states have tended to take a tougher stance vis-à-vis Russia (pdf) than, say, Germany or France.
The accession of formerly communist East European countries was also of both symbolic and practical importance to those Hoosiers of East European descent.
Many of these individuals have families in Eastern Europe whom it was difficult to visit during the communist era. Shortly after joining the EU, these countries intensified their efforts to ease visa restrictions to travel to the U.S.
In 2008, nearly all of the new EU members were admitted into the Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of these countries to visit the U.S. without a visa for stays of less than three months. Among the new members, only Poland has thus far been excluded from the program, although the Obama administration has promised to allow Poland in.
This episode of One State One World is produced in partnership with the EU Center at Indiana University.
Read more about the European Union on the EU Center’s blog, Across the Pond.