Ten years ago, the political geography of Europe changed when ten countries mostly from Central and Eastern Europe joined the European Union. Then Bulgaria, Romania, and eventually Croatia followed, thereby creating the largest single market and the biggest area of freedom of movement in the world. However, after the initial EUphoria, the “new” members soon faced the reality of the stark discrepancy between them in their ability to keep up with the integration-stride of the “older” kids. The recent crisis in particular has not only left some newbies vulnerable in the economic department, but allowed populists and eurosceptics to dominate the domestic discourse on European affairs. Yavor Aleksiev, Economist at the Institute for Market Economic (Bulgaria), Csaba Tóth, Director of Strategy at the Republikon Institute (Hungary) and Błažej Lenkowski, President of Fundacja Industrial (Poland) discussed whether the biggest enlargement in EU history has meet the expectations of the new members and what the greatest challenges are for liberals with regards to the upcoming European Parliament elections.
Yavor Aleksiev deplored that Bulgaria is still EU’s poorest Member State: expectations of EU Membership have not been met as socio-economic indicators show almost no improvement. Despite a small increase in GDP per capita, people’s expectations of attaining the standard of living citizens of Austria or Germany enjoy have not been met. As a consequence, every time the EU regulates and sets a certain standard, that action has a large effect on Bulgaria, which is struggling to match those standards. While Bulgaria is trying to cope with regulations, it is triply burdened by brain drain and labor scarcity paired with unemployment. On a positive note, Aleksiev reported that a referendum on three domestic policy points scheduled on the day of the European Parliament elections is expected to increase voter turnout.
In Hungary, Csaba Tóth, outlined, the accession-phase was marked by Euphoria. Joining the EU was not merely an economic question, but gave Hungarians a sense of finally being accepted to a club to which they historically felt a strong sense of belonging. After accession, the political establishment continued to be pro-EU and there was no anti-EU party until 2010. However, the general public remained relatively disengaged with regards to European affairs. Even more alarming, according to Tóth, is that the current political climate can be characterized as one of polarization of attitudes and polarization of issues. Tóth gave the example of Prime Minister Orbán, who continuously blames the EU (allegedly in cahoots with multinational companies) for every evil even though he is part of the EU decision-making process himself. The main problem is not that euroscepticism is rising, although it is currently at 30%, but that the 36% of those in favor of the EU are split-up into several quarreling factions.
Ten years ago things looked much brighter in Poland, too. Błažej Lenkowski reports that the last decade has seen a rare period of growth and reform in Poland’s long history. EU Membership and the single market facilitated Poland’s access to markets of fellow member states, resulting in an 18,5% increase in exports between 2007 and 2012. However, Euphoria began to dwindle over joining the Eurozone, because no additional increase of exports was to be expected. Today, the majority of the Polish public is weary of the Euro and they fear that Poland will be left out as the EU steamrolls towards new integration projects.
Juxtaposing the increasingly populist rhetoric that has emerged during the crisis with the benefits accession has brought, such as access to energy grids, modernization of transportation infrastructure, being an EU citizen is deeply rooted in the self-image of the people of Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary prove the 2013 Eurobarometer survey. When asked whether EU membership has benefitted their countries, 51% of Bulgarians, 78% of Poles and 47% of Hungarians firmly agree – and have steadily done so throughout the eurocrisis.
Regardless, it is up to the liberal parties to give people a new, refreshed, positive outlook for the European project and to develop a new message to change the easy yet unconstructive criticisms into constructive discourse.
Fotos: FNF Europe