In May the ‘Big Bangers’ marked a decade in the European Union. It’s fair to say there have been highs and lows. Here is their verdict on their first 10 years in the club.
For better, for worse
While impressions of EU membership differ from member state to member state, quite often the regional experiences are similar.
View from The Mediterranean – Cyprus and Malta are the EU’s small island Mediterranean states, both former British colonies, both members of the Commonwealth, both tough-minded, plucky nations.
For Cyprus, divided and situated in the volatile East Mediterranean, joining the EU has been “the most important strategic development” since independence.
For Malta, membership has changed it “dramatically and positively”. The two Meds remain upbeat about their membership in spite of difficulties faced by financial crisis, especially in the case of Cyprus.
View from the Middle – the verdict is a qualified positive from the former Eastern Bloc countries. Poland is “much better off” while for Hungary, the positive impact “cannot be overstated” but it has had its “debates and disagreements” with the EU.
View from the Baltic – For the Baltic Three (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), joining Europe from years of Soviet occupation, was overwhelmingly positive. “We are definitely better off in an area of geopolitical stability, security and welfare,” responded the Latvian Ambassador Andris Teikmanis.
View from the Med – for the small, open economies of the islands, access to the big single market, free movement of people and enhanced opportunities for education were top of their list of benefits.
Malta, in particular, had seen the growth of whole new industries because of access to investment and a bigger market. EU funds had helped it improve vital infrastructure and restore parts of its historical heritage.
Additionally for Cyprus, EU membership offers a new dimension to finding a solution to the Cyprus problem.
“The accession of Cyprus to the EU, in a parallel track with the accession course of Turkey, have redefined the parameters of the Cyprus problem,” responded High Commissioner Euripides Evriviades.
View from the Middle – For the Baltics and the former Eastern Bloc, all stressed the psychological importance of “homecoming” to the heart of Europe as the overwhelming benefit which eclipsed single market gains.
“Even in the darkest hours of our history the Lithuanian people never doubted that Lithuania belonged to Europe, shared its values, and that one day the free and independent Baltic country would rejoin the Western Democratic World,” responded the Lithuanian Ambassador Mrs Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene.
“We are definitely better off in an area of geopolitical stability, security and welfare”
View from the Med – Both the Med islands were disappointed in the “lack of solidarity” but for different reasons. For Malta, the EU had not offered sufficient assistance in dealing with the huge problem of illegal immigration in the Mediterranean area.
“More needs to be done to ensure solidarity and fair sharing of asylum responsibility among EU Member States,” responded the High Commissioner Norman Hamilton.
Because most asylum seekers came from conflict zones, Malta granted asylum in 85 per cent of cases in 2013, compared to the EU average of 35 per cent.
For Cyprus it was the way it has been treated in the context of the economic crisis. “As a small and vulnerable EU Member State [we were] possibly used as an experiment for the new EU policy for the rescue of banks with a bail-in, which now seems to be established at a European level,” said the High Commissioner.
View from the Middle – For the Poles the biggest challenge was one of confidence – making the transition from being a “new member” moving from being an active and crucial member. For the Latvians, managing huge emigration at a time of crisis was difficult, while for the Lithuanians taking over the presidency in 2013 while the Eurozone was in the grips of crisis was very “demanding”.
View from the Med – these islands may be small but their contribution is large when it comes to strategic importance.
Malta is a bridge to North Africa and during the Libyan crisis, EU nationals were evacuated to the Island.
Cyprus, meanwhile, offers predictable foreign policy in the volatile East Mediterranean and Cyprus is a natural link to the Middle East.
View from the Middle – Poland lists “responsible passion about the European project” as its biggest contribution.
For the Balts, their role in bringing Eastern partners closer to the EU was highlighted.
The Lithuanian Ambassador points out: “The challenge of transition to democracy has not been met by everyone in Eastern Europe. Moreover, strong, united and democratic Europe is not seen favourably by some geopolitical players.
“This is especially relevant in the context of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Therefore, we believe that our presence in the EU family has contributed to a better understanding of aspirations of our fellow neighbours whose road to the EU has only begun.”
In addition to the Eastern Partnership, the Latvians are also the greenest country in Europe and point the way towards a sustainable, low-carbon economy.
Room for improvement
Asked for how the EU could be improved, the majority said the EU needed to become more democratic, by “[increasing] ownership and legitimacy of the European project among European citizens”.
The EU needs to implement measures that will have a tangible effect on the daily lives of citizens. “Legitimacy can only come through results,” the High Commissioner for Cyprus pointed out.
The Big Bangers also believe bureaucracy and “frustrating” decision making, especially on topical issues, could be improved.
Malta called for more solidarity when serious issues faced a Member State, such as illegal immigration.
The Big Bang in numbers
Statistics tell their own tale about the experience of the Big Bang accession. Here is a small selection:
Sixty four per cent of young Cypriots feel the greatest challenge the EU and their country faces is unemployment.
Improved prosperity was most pronounced in the Central and Baltic states. Lithuania’s GDP grew by 54 per cent over the last decade, while Poland’s expanded by 48.7% and Latvia grew by 40 per cent, despite undergoing some years of severe austerity.
For Malta, where the economy was already in decent shape, it has maintained healthy macroeconomic indicators despite a very difficult economic climate in the eurozone – growth at 2.4 per cent, FDI never dipping below 7 per cent of GDP and budget deficit at 2.8 per cent.
Polish entrepreneurs turned a PLN 13.5 billion trade deficit with EU member states in 2003 into an impressive trade surplus of almost PLN 100 billion in 2013 and two million jobs were created.
In Latvia, salaries more than doubled and exports tripled over the decade.
“Legitimacy can only come through results”
CYPRUS HIGH COMMISSIONER
Before joining, some Big Bangers were apprehensive, others were full of enthusiasm. How have their views changed after 10 years in the club? Here views are divergent.
Today 75 per cent of Cypriots have no trust towards the EU, whereas in 2004, the results were reverse with more than 70 per cent trusting the EU, a clear reaction to the tough bail-in measures.
In Malta, Eurobarometer surveys of October 2004 showed that 45 per cent of the respondents believed EU membership was a good thing. In June 2013, this percentage had increased to 64 per cent.
At the time of joining the EU, 60 per cent of Poles supported joining ; today 89 per cent of Poles are content with membership in the EU.
Fellow central European Hungary, according to the Eurobarometer survey, approval of the EU is at 35 per cent (where the EU average is 31 per cent).
In Latvia in 2003, 67 per cent were in favour of the EU; today only 20 per cent are not in favour.
Lithuanian support for the EU is still high, at 75 per cent, although that has decreased from giddy pre-accession EU enthusiasm of 90 per cent.
“More needs to be done to ensure solidarity”
MALTA HIGH COMMISSIONER
Biggest asset, biggest weakness
Most of the Accession 10 were agreed on this: ironically, the EU’s biggest asset – the ability to reach consensus of 28 very different Member States in order to provide synergy unachievable when acting alone – is also its biggest weakness: time consuming negotiations and consensus building process to come to a common position.
Some states also pointed out that despite being a union, solidarity “becomes an empty word” when the interests of member states are conflicting.
Related to the benefit of a union of 28 sovereign states, the single market and free movement were listed as the EU’s biggest asset.
With a union of 28 members, most of the Big Bangers agreed that EU’s bureaucratic procedures need tidying up and that decisions should be taken at a national level where possible.
To quote the outgoing President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, “Europe should be big on the big things, and smaller on the small things.”
Overall, the first decade as a member of the EU has been a positive experience. When asked to rate the EU’s performance on a scale of one to 10, scores ranged from an luke-warm 5 to a praise-worthy 9. But taken in all, the EU averaged out at a solid 7 – good, but room for improvement.