Page last updated at 19:34 GMT, Friday, 20 February 2009

EU Commission hails enlargement

European flags outside the EU (file)
The European Union is now the world's biggest integrated economic area

The European Commission says the 27-nation EU must not let the current economic crisis jeopardise the gains of eastward enlargement.

A commission report says the accession of 12 states since 2004 - mostly ex-Soviet bloc countries - boosted living standards and business opportunities.

It said enlargement served as an anchor for stability and driver of democracy.

But there are concerns that EU states may be tempted to prop up weak domestic firms at their neighbours' expense.

The BBC's Chris Mason in Brussels says the impact of the economic crisis threatens to undermine the single market, a founding tenet of European integration.

'Peace and prosperity'

The European Union took in 10 mostly ex-communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe in 2004 and two more, Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007.

It is now the world's biggest integrated economic area, with half a billion people producing 30% of global economic output and 17% of world trade.

Joaquin Almunia (left) and Olli Rehn (20 February 2009)
Enlargement has served as an anchor of stability, and driver of democracy and the rule of law in Europe
Olli Rehn
EU Enlargement Commissioner

In the report on published on Friday, the commission said enlargement had brought about huge economic and political benefits for both sides.

Income per capita in new member states rose from 40% of the old member states' average in 1999 to 52% in 2008. Economic growth averaged 5.5% per year in 2004-2008, compared to 3.5% in 1999-2003.

The old member states averaged annual growth of around 2.2% in the last four years.

Enlargement also increased trade opportunities. In 2007, almost 80% of exports of the new member states went to the rest of the EU. Old member states also saw their sales to the new members increase to around 7.5% of their total exports in 2007, from 4.75% a decade ago.

Unemployment in new member states declined to levels similar to those across the rest of the EU - around 7% in 2007.

"Enlargement has served as an anchor of stability, and driver of democracy and the rule of law in Europe," Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said.

"Economically it has benefited both new and old member states, as well as the EU as a whole. It has extended the area of peace and prosperity to almost 500 million people and increased our weight in the world," he added.

Protectionism fears

But some of the poorer member states fear protectionism is on the rise in richer countries, our correspondent says.

Divided we will achieve nothing
Joaquin Almunia
EU Economic Affairs Commissioner

The old member states can afford to spend billions of dollars to shield their banks and industries from the crisis, he adds.

"We should not let the crisis overshadow this uncontested success. United, we can shape the solution to global issues such as climate change or a new international financial governance," Economic Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said. "Divided we will achieve nothing."

An emergency summit will take place in Brussels on 1 March partly to discuss protectionism.

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