"I would be delighted if more people in the old member states dared to get to know our new partners - it's not even really a dare any more. I keep on coming across a great lack of knowledge, and I find that sad," Verheugen, who served as EU enlargement commissioner from 1999 to 2004, told German agency DPA.
In spite of the current economic turmoil, which has hit the new member states particularly hard and which has brought political unrest in its wake, Verheugen insisted that the enlargement was a success.
"Despite this crisis, we reached the political goal of this grand enlargement - to make the process of the democratic transformation of the former Communist areas of Europe irreversible. That's what it was all about."
The new members "are still in an economic catching-up process, which we always knew would last a long time. My prediction was that it would last at least a generation," he said.
"You can't expect political structures in the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe to be as stable as they are in the much older, crisis-tested democracies in the old member states."
Verheugen rejected any link between enlargement and an expected low voter turnout at the 4-7 June European elections across the 27 EU countries (EurActiv 15/04/09), saying: "My explanation is that people looked for a scapegoat, completely unjustifiably, and that since then, it hasn't been communicated well enough that the enlargement was a political and economic success."
In the commissioner's eyes, the one major failure of the 2004 enlargement was the EU's inability to forge a solution to the Cyprus conflict, following a referendum which saw the Greek half of the island unexpectedly reject a UN-brokered peace plan which the Turkish half had backed.
“I, at least, did not expect that. I make no secret of the fact that this was one of the greatest political disappointments of my life,” he said. But he added that Cyprus could now be moving closer to a solution, with peace talks ongoing between Greeks and Turks.
“It seems to me that there is now a window of opportunity. It is in the interest of all sides to find a solution, and I can only hope that it works this time.”
Above all, however, for Verheugen, the key to making EU enlargement a success is to get more Europeans to go and see the new member states for themselves.
“My appeal is above all to young people in Europe: pack your rucksacks, go East and see for yourselves. The more we get to know one another, the stronger will be the feeling of belonging together,” said Verheugen.