The Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia will formally accede to the EU at a ceremony in the Irish capital, Dublin. The addition of the 10 countries and their 75 million people will swell the European Union to 25 member states with a combined population of some 450 million. The EU's last enlargement came in 1995, when Sweden, Finland, and Austria joined.
Dublin is in a festive mood for the accession summit, with flags flying and a fireworks extravaganza planned. The choice of Ireland as the site for the ceremony is purely by chance, in that it is the current holder of the rotating EU presidency.
But there could be no happier coincidence, as Ireland is one of the success stories of the European Union. In the span of a few decades, it has risen from a poor rural backwater to a dynamic high-tech economy, while retaining strong social cohesion. Many of the EU newcomers will be seeking to draw lessons from the Irish experience.
Yesterday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw expressed the general feeling of satisfaction over EU enlargement. "We are seeing something which I, frankly, never thought I'd see in my lifetime -- namely, a reality of a Europe united by values, which include strong nation-states, working together in partnership," he said.
Nevertheless, the unprecedented expansion comes at a complicated moment for the EU. "On the one hand, [the expansion] is the signal of a reunited Europe -- culturally, politically, economically,” Waltson said. “But on the other hand, it is the beginning of a lot of hard questions and a lot of hard politicking."
The EU's success as an economic entity is proven. But the expansion is coming at a time when it has lost its sense of direction in political terms.
Public opinion polls show the EU is declining in popularity. Accession countries -- though they want membership for its economic advantages -- are grumbling about loss of sovereignty to Brussels. Old members worry about being flooded by cheap labor from the east and have erected temporary barriers against worker migration.
The EU's new constitution -- a document seen as necessary if the bloc is to have any chance of operating efficiently -- is facing difficult hurdles on its way to approval. And hopes of a coherent foreign policy have taken a blow due to differences over the Iraq war.
"We have already had, with 15 members, clear differences of opinion -- sometimes quite serious differences,” Waltson said. “Obviously, with 25 members, we are going to have much greater differences, and that makes the decision-making process, the constitution, all the more essential, because it would be naive to presume that we can just go ahead with goodwill when there are different interests, different views, different backgrounds. The Eastern European countries now part of the EU [are carrying] very different historical baggage to the Western Europeans."
The expansion of the EU is, therefore, not only an important occasion for the accession countries, but is also a key moment for the union itself. The question is whether the EU can successfully absorb so many new countries, maintain its cohesion and also find a new sense of momentum.
If it fails, then the EU could relapse into being a sort of free-trade zone, economically useful to its members but not a political force on the international stage. If it succeeds, then with the strength of 25 members behind it, the EU could advance to a weightier role in global affairs.
The present expansion, huge as it is, will not be the last. Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey are already formal candidates. Sofia and Bucharest should gain admission within a few years, although there have been doubts expressed about the readiness of Romania within that time frame.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair foreshadowed the next wave of expansion in a speech to Parliament last week: "Bulgaria and Romania are set for membership in future years, taking the numbers then to 27, and Turkey is now making extraordinary strides forward in democracy, human rights, and economic change, [and] in the resolution of the conflict in Cyprus -- strides that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago -- and all under the impulsion of future EU membership."
Despite Blair's positive reference to Turkey, the question of Ankara's membership remains controversial.
Political analyst Peter Zervakis of Bonn University's Center for European Integration points out that the current thinking in the European Commission is to give the EU time to absorb the present newcomers before looking too far forward. "[Guenter] Verheugen, the EU's enlargement commissioner, said in an interview yesterday that after the expansion to include Romania and Bulgaria, there must be a long breathing space, so that the EU has an opportunity to regenerate politically," he said. "Because, after all, the deepening of the community, the reforms necessary to make the union an efficient working body, are still far from being finished."
(In Part 2, we will look in more detail at the question of a further expansion of the EU.)