With the planned accession of Croatia to the EU today, the EU will total 28 member states and 507 million citizens.
The EU is gradually and steadily redesigning its economic foundations and putting in place the conditions for sustainable growth. As it does so, it continues to make progress with two main priorities: enlargement and deepening of cooperation among its member states.
Enlargement brings dynamism to the EU, as with Croatia’s accession. Croatia is a Mediterranean country of 4.5 million people, with an energetic economy, a rich historical heritage and a very promising tourism sector.
Apart from Croatia, the EU has the potential to continue to enlarge in the future. There are a number of so-called “candidate countries,” which are already upgrading their laws, regulations and economic and social systems to make them fully compliant with EU rules. These candidate countries are Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Iceland and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Another group, which has not yet been recognized as formal candidates, also have the possibility to join one day. These include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.
In the future, the EU could include as many as 36 countries and 600 million citizens. The enlargement process is especially important to countries in the Western Balkan region. Just 20 years ago, the region was engulfed in terrible conflicts that saw the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Today, for Croatia and for others in the region, the process of joining the EU is a crucial assurance of long-term peace.
The concept of enlargement also applies to the eurozone, where the common currency has already replaced national currencies. Today, the euro area is made up of 17 countries, representing a population of 330 million. Future accession to the eurozone will bring in as many as eight other countries. Latvia is set to be the first to join next year.
While the EU is extending its geographical reach, it is also deepening further. Deepening means developing new areas where the EU acts jointly, to replace previously uncoordinated action at national level. It also means further integrating policies in those fields where Europeans think that working together is more efficient than doing things separately.
The EU is not very popular among its own citizens right now, as it is blamed for the tough restructuring measures that were necessary to bring national economies back on track. Nevertheless, Europeans continue to support common EU action in specific areas. A majority want the EU to work more intensively on issues like defense and foreign policy, terrorism and environmental protection.
Eighty-five percent of Europeans also think, as a result of the financial crisis, that EU countries will actually have to work together more closely. This trend of ever closer union led to the Treaty of Lisbon, which created a new institution, the European External Action Service, which plays the role of an EU ministry of foreign affairs. In foreign trade, recent months have seen the EU launching new initiatives to negotiate free-trade agreements with large economies including Japan and the US.
Europe has gone through difficult economic times recently. It is now clearly on the path to recovery.
After the honor of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December last year, the EU is now celebrating again with Croatia’s accession. This happy occasion offers this unique group of democracies, who chose to share and cooperate rather than compete and fight, an occasion to look to the future with hope and optimism.
Frederic Laplanche is head of the European Economic and Trade Office in Taipei.