Twenty years down the road, the enlargement policy of the European Union continues to inspire countries in the regions bordering the European Union, say Nicolai Wammen and Stefan Füle.
Nicolai Wammen is Denmark’s minister for European Affairs. Stefan Füle is commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy.
"As advocates of the EU enlargement policy we are both repeatedly asked: Why is enlargement so important? Do we not have enough problems in the EU already? Why bother?
Our answer is consistently: Because we fundamentally think that it is the right thing to do – for the countries aspiring to EU membership and for Europe.
We have both come of age politically in the period during and after the fall of the Iron Curtain. And we have seen first-hand how enlargement has transformed societies in Eastern and Central Europe.
We should not forget that it was not predestined to be so. The European leaders at that time made a conscious, political choice and a wise one: Meeting in Copenhagen in June 1993 they decided to invite the associated countries in Central and Eastern Europe to become members of the European Union.
The aim was clear: To support the reform-processes, transmit the European values of democracy and human rights and ensure a peaceful and stable development.
The conditions for membership – which we have come to know as the ‘Copenhagen criteria’ – included the need for prospective member states to have stable and democratic institutions and a functioning market economy, as well as the ability to assume the obligations of membership.
The decision of the European Council provided the associated countries with a clear sense of direction. But also a daunting list of homework to do. In 2004 Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as Cyprus and Malta entered the European Union, followed by Romania and Bulgaria three years later.
Twenty years down the road, the enlargement policy of the European Union continues to inspire countries in the regions bordering the European Union. And the Copenhagen criteria are still the main reference points when we assess the ability of candidate states to assume EU-membership.
In the Western Balkans, where societies are struggling to put the conflicts of the 1990s behind them once and for all, the promise of a European future has proven to be a powerful driver of change and democratic and economic transformation. The recent historic agreement between Belgrade and Pristina being an important case in point.
It is not always easy. The Copenhagen criteria set high standards and set-backs happen. But as true friends we stand by our principles. And we are committed to help, also when it is difficult."