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1. 3. 2009 22:00

EU Enlargement – 5 years after

Welcome address delivered by A. Vondra, Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs, Prgaue 1 March 2009

Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to welcome you to the opening dinner of the international conference ”EU Enlargement – 5 years after“.

This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain. On 1 May, five years will also have passed from the historically largest EU enlargement, which symbolically crowned the reunification of Europe. This is an opportunity to take stock, to confirm or disprove our expectations linked to enlargement.

For some years already, we have been witnessing a growing enlargement fatigue as well as some interesting contrasts. While policymakers are concerned that an ever-larger EU would come at the expense of the Union’s ability to function and integrate further, most voters appear to be more concerned about the economic impact of low-cost countries joining the EU – about greater pressure on labour markets, lower standards of living, redistribution of wealth in favour of the East...

At the same time, there is a sharp contrast between public perceptions about the impact of the last rounds of enlargement and the assessment of it stemming from data that we have at hand. No wonder. The eastward enlargement took place at a time when other developments considerably added to economic uncertainties in Europe, especially in its Western part. Globalisation, the economic rise of China and other emerging economic powers have shaken the competitiveness of the European industry. German reunification depressed the German economy that had traditionally been the powerhouse of growth for much of Europe. For European citizens, it has been difficult to disentangle the various sources of economic uncertainty. All the bigger is the debt we all have – the politicians in the first place – towards our public in terms of explaining and informing about enlargement.

This conference is an attempt to contribute to repaying this debt. The Czech Presidency would like to use the opportunity of the 5th anniversary to evaluate the economic impact of the Eastern enlargement. We would like to highlight the fact that the 2004 and 2007 enlargements were not only beneficial for the acceding Member States, but also for those who already were members of the club. That new Member States are not a burden that needs to be absorbed. That the rapid productivity growth, falling unemployment and fast income convergence of the new Member States went hand in hand with growth in old member countries, which would not have been feasible without unprecedented investment and export opportunities on new markets in the Central and Eastern Europe. That the pressure for structural reforms, triggered by enlargement, has strengthened the competitiveness of Europe in the globalised world and thus has benefited the EU as a whole. In other words, that enlargement has been a win-win situation for us all.

It makes sense to shed more light on the impact of enlargement for several reasons:
1) First, analysis of successes and failures may provide a useful background when trying to evaluate the impact that future enlargements could have on the EU.
2) Second, it will help to assess the changes that are needed in the EU to speed up the digestion of the last enlargement.
3) Third, it is important to counter general fears about the costs of enlargements, both past and future. This is particularly important at times when the EU is being haunted by the fear of a new, ”Eastern“ phase of the economic crisis.

Before I pass the floor to Commissioner Špidla, please allow me to thank cordially all those who have participated in the preparations of this conference and have helped to make it happen. I would like to thank the European Commission, whose study will provide important food for thought during the conference and which is the result of the highly qualified work of several DG´s. Many thanks go to the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and the Bruegel think-tank who have, too, contributed with very valuable studies. I would also like to thank the Representation of the European Commission in Prague for an excellent cooperation throughout the preparation of the conference. And last but not least, I would like to thank the distinguished chairs and speakers, who have lent their time, names and experience and will no doubt contribute to the high quality and to sending echoes of the conference out to the public.
Commissioner, the floor is yours.

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