1 May 2004 saw the greatest enlargement in the history of the European Union. In one fell swoop, the number of member states jumped from 15 to 25. Our colleague Eckart Cuntz was involved in the work on the enlargement process and shares his memories for our series 'On the frontlines of history'.
“When you have been there for the entire progression from the fall of the Wall to that point then naturally it was a moment of great joy”, says Eckart Cuntz, remembering the night of 1 May 2004.
Back then, as Head of the European Directorate-General at the Federal Foreign Office, he was with former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer at the festivities on the German-Polish border – fireworks, crowds of people, lots of cheering.
Nevertheless, for him the story had already begun years ago, when he was working on the prospect of EU eastward enlargement as a German diplomat.
The radical change of 1989 kick-starts the process
“Ultimately, it all began for me in 1987 when I arrived at the Permanent Representation in Brussels”, recounts Cuntz. By then the matter had already come up in discussion: “What do we – back then the European Economic Community – do with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe?” And alongside this, Glasnost and Perestroika were implemented and the year 1989 arrived.
After the fall of the Wall this was naturally top of the agenda in Brussels. What happens if the prospect of a united Germany is raised? What happens if prospects are also raised for all of the other Central and Eastern European states which have experienced this democratic revolution? Well at the beginning we were somewhat at a loss.
The European Council of December 1989 was the first meeting of the EEC Heads of State and Government at which the future of Germany and the other countries undergoing radical change was discussed. The European Council in Dublin in April 1990 then set out clearer prospects for the eastern part of Germany.
German reunification under Europe’s roof
At the Permanent Representation of Germany to the then European Economic Community (EEC), Eckart Cuntz worked as a counsellor, attending meetings of working groups tasked with dealing with the consequences of the democratic revolution of 1989 for Europeans and Germans.
It was so overwhelming, some member states were hesitant and certainly were not shouting “hooray” from the very beginning. Certain others, like Spanish Prime Minister González, strongly supported it from the outset – and we Germans were always grateful to him for doing so.
Federal Chancellor Kohl swiftly made it clear that there should be a reunification of Germany under Europe’s roof, says Cuntz, as well as further integration steps.
No alternative to Eastward enlargement
With the solution for Germany – and the accession of its eastern part to the EEC within the framework of reunification – the focus shifted further to the East. “I have vivid memories of a Polish counsellor who later became Polish Permanent Representative. He came to me nearly every two days to say ‘we also want something to be developed for us’.”
In the EU Commission people soon started thinking about it, remembers Ambassador Cuntz. “What kind of an agreement would be conceivable to create closer connections between the European Union and the Central and Eastern European states which had undergone this radical change?”
However, the arrangement designed by the European Economic Area – according to Cuntz akin to a waiting room – was not enough for the Central and Eastern European states. “No, of course it was not enough for these countries, they wanted to head towards entry.”
All in one fell swoop?
Ambassador Cuntz remembers what was discussed back then: “Of course the perception – including amongst many in Germany – was that we cannot admit all the new democracies in one go, they are not at all ready. Maybe we could first admit three or four. How do you do that? These issues were discussed in the capitals and in Brussels”.
The focus was above all on the consequences for the existing community, according to Cuntz: “Can we progress so quickly, will we not overstretch ourselves? Are the countries which want to join ready for enlargement, but also is the EU stable and prepared enough for it? These were the questions which were asked time and again and which are being asked again today.”
Transitional periods, for example for the freedom of movement for workers, were able to alleviate the concerns of many sceptics, reports Cuntz. “However the goal was always clear – unfettered free movement of persons.”
10 cross the finishing line
Eckart Cuntz was chef de cabinet of the Secretary General of the Council of the European Union in Brussels from 1994 to 1999. He was also there when Austria, Sweden and Finland joined in 1995. This also provided new impetus for eastward enlargement:
You asked yourself: we have now admitted neutral states like Finland or Sweden. What political obstacles stand in the way of also admitting the Central and Eastern European states?
The key preparations for eastward enlargement took place at the European Council in Luxembourg in 1997, he continues. The plan was for the accessions to follow the “regatta principle”: whoever fulfils all the accession criteria fastest joins the EU first.
Contrary to our hopes however, at that time it was not possible to resolve the Cyprus issue. In a referendum, the south voted against reunification according to the Annan Plan, whilst the north voted in favour. “This led to the part of the country which had voted in favour remaining out whilst the other, which had rejected unification, joined the EU,” says Cuntz. Today we still have a divided Cyprus, even if theoretically the whole country is a member of the EU. Nonetheless I have not given up hope yet.
Ramifications of eastward enlargement today
The world of today is of course a completely changed place, and in the good sense, as now there is no mistrust towards all of the EU’s Central and Eastern European states.
The sovereign debt crisis had caused enthusiasm for Europe to fall significantly, but as Cuntz’s says: “Nonetheless I think that most people – especially in Germany – know that there is no alternative to Europe.”