Which countries are considered to be Eastern European?

Background current

The largest ever enlargement of the EU took place in May 2004. Most of the ten Central and Eastern European accession countries have since developed positively from an economic point of view. The rule of law proceedings against Poland and Hungary put the political balance sheet into perspective.

Poland joined the EU on May 1, 2004. On the day of accession, countless people crossed the Oder Bridge between the two border towns of Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

On May 1, 2004, the then German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and his Polish counterpart Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz symbolically opened the border between Frankfurt (Oder) and Słubice. That same night, hundreds crossed the Oder Bridge between Germany and Poland in both directions, making use of the right of free movement of people. With the so-called eastward expansion, the division of Europe - around 15 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain - was considered to have been overcome.

A total of ten states joined the European Union on that day: the Baltic states and the former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, also Poland, Czech Republic, the Slovakia, Hungary, the former Yugoslav republic Slovenia as well as the two Mediterranean countries Malta and Cyprus. The EU grew from 15 to 25 members - and welcomed around 75 million new Union citizens. About half of them lived in Poland.

Restrictions on the free movement of workers

Before the new members joined, some of the old member states had reservations about the possible consequences of eastward expansion. The economic gap between the accession countries and the previous member states is too great. The wage gap was also repeatedly cited as an argument against the enlargement round. Many feared that labor immigration from the new member states could lead to low wages and higher unemployment. The debate was particularly controversial in Germany: Immediately before the accession round in May 2004, only 28 percent of Germans were in favor of enlargement in the Eurobarometer - in no other old EU member state were the approval rates so low (average approval in the old member states: 39 percent).

With regard to the free movement of workers, the states agreed on a transition period ("2 + 3 + 2 rule"): within seven years, the previous member states could decide in three stages whether they wanted to open their labor market to workers from the new member states. Only three member states - Ireland, Sweden and Great Britain - already allowed labor migration in 2004. Germany and Austria waited until 2011 and thus exhausted the deadline to the full. The transitional arrangement did not apply to citizens from Malta and Cyprus. You have had full freedom of movement since May 1, 2004.

Occurred on January 1, 2007 Bulgaria and Romania the EU. Six years later, on July 1, 2013, followed Croatia.

Enormous gain in economic power

The new member states have significantly increased their economic power since 2004. If the gross domestic product (GDP) is based on purchasing power standards (PPS), for example Lithuania was only 55 percent of the average economic output of the states in the EU in 2006, today it is 78 percent. In 2017, the Czech Republic already reached 89 percent of the average EU GDP according to purchasing power standards, Poland 70 percent.

The situation is somewhat different for Bulgaria and Romania, which only joined the EU in 2007. Today, the two states only achieve 49 and 63 percent of the average EU economic power, respectively, whereby a positive development can be observed especially in the case of Romania since joining the EU.

High mobility rate

The differences in labor costs are also no longer as high as they were when the Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004. Back then, employers paid an average of EUR 4.70 per hour worked in Poland; today it is EUR 10.10 - an increase of 115 percent. In the same period of time, the average labor costs in the entire EU rose by only 38 percent - one hour of work costs companies today with 27.40 euros.

Despite the relative economic upturn in Eastern Europe since 2004, the mobility rate in some of the new member states is above average. More than 15 percent of 15 to 64-year-old Romanians had lived abroad for more than ten years by 2014. In Lithuania, Latvia and Croatia it was also over ten percent. Overall, among the ten EU countries with the highest mobility rate, there are eight Eastern European countries that joined the Union between 2004 and 2013.

However, migration does have its downsides - these are particularly visible in the countries of origin. In 2017, just under a fifth (19.7 percent) of the Romanian population between the ages of 20 and 64 lived in another EU country to work. Lithuania (15.0 percent), Croatia (14.0 percent), Portugal (13.9 percent), Latvia (12.9 percent) and Bulgaria (12.5) percent also have a high mobility rate.

However, there are increasing signs that emigration will slow down as economic growth continues. The Czech population has grown slightly since 2009, and Poland has also lost less than one percent of its population since 2009. In Hungary, however, the population continues to shrink, 600,000 Hungarian citizens are now working in other EU countries. Observers explain this, at least in part, with the authoritarian policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which also marginalize many opposition members professionally.

Seven countries have become members of the euro zone

Since 2004, a total of seven of the new member states of the euro have joined the European common currency: Slovenia (2007), Cyprus and Malta (both 2008), Slovakia (2009), Estonia (2011), Latvia (2014) and Lithuania (2015). This means that the euro is currently the national currency in 19 out of 28 EU member states. The economic prerequisites (convergence criteria) for joining the euro include low inflation and annual new debt that does not exceed 3 percent of GDP.

In principle, all other EU states that have not yet introduced the euro have committed to joining the monetary union - as soon as they meet the convergence criteria (with the exception of Denmark and Great Britain). However, there are currently reservations about the introduction of the euro in some Central and Eastern European countries, such as Poland.

The current problems between the older and younger EU countries are primarily of a political nature. In Hungary and Poland, eurosceptic parties have ruled since 2010 and 2015 respectively, which are gradually undermining democratic principles such as the separation of powers and freedom of the press. This has repeatedly led to tensions and is currently also reflected in the debate about new sanction mechanisms for EU states that break with the rule of law.

In addition to Turkey, four Southeastern European countries currently have the status of EU accession candidates: Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. While Turkey's accession to the EU seems unrealistic at the moment, EU Commission President Juncker last mentioned 2025 as a possible time horizon for Montenegro and Serbia, should the accession criteria be fully met by then. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are considered "potential candidate countries" - no official accession negotiations have yet been started with these two countries.

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