CU hosts conference on ‘eve’ of EU accession anniversary

Friday, 12 April 2024 17:50

Charles University this week hosted a high-level conference on the European Union as a "success story". The event, focusing on the many benefits of EU enlargement, brought together distinguished guests in the Hall of Patriots. Key speakers, from former prime ministers to current government officials, recalled how accession had changed and ultimately improved citizens’ lives for the better within the framework of the EU, ensuring increased prosperity and stability in Europe.

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Vice-Rector Eva Voldřichová Beránková, at the podium, was one of the first to speak at the recent conference on EU accession at CU.

The debate and discussion was opened by the Vice-Rector for International Affairs Eva Voldřichová Beránková who welcomed key speakers, students, academics and others on the ‘eve’ of the 20th anniversary on 1 May. “Twenty years ago, upon EU accession, the weather had been warmer but partly cloudy,” she said. Or partly sunny – depending on the observer. The metaphor of mixed conditions could apply to EU membership: while the vice-rector said the aim was to focus on ‘success stories’ it was clear there were critical aspects and differences among member countries as well.

“Membership has transformed our countries economic, cultural, and political terms, and at the same time transformed the EU itself and the entire community,” she stressed, adding that the conference offered an outlook not only on the past but also the future of enlargement. The discussion would later touch upon Ukraine, Moldavia, Georgia, the western Balkans, Turkey and even Belarus – without of course ignoring the war in Ukraine which continues unabated and represents the biggest threat and shift in security since the end of the Cold War.

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Eliška Tomalová, from the Institute of International Studies at CU, spoke briefly about EU accession before introducing the main speakers: the Czech government’s Minister for European Affairs Martin Dvořák, Ireland’s former Minister of State for European Affairs Tomas Byrne, former EU commissioner and former Athens mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos, and MEP and former prime minister of Lithuania Andrius Kubilius. Also invited to speak was Czechia's former Minister for European Affairs, Stefan Füle.     

Organised by the Embassies of Ireland, Greece, and Lithuania in Prague, in conjunction with the Office of the Minister for European Affairs, the event looked at the past, present and future, with each period offering specific challenges, successes as well as difficulties and missteps. Presented by speakers were effectively individual case studies of countries transformed by membership at different inflection points: Ireland in 1973, Greece in 1981, and Lithuania in 2004 (the last representing the largest single wave of accession which also included the Czech Republic and other former members of the Warsaw Pact).

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Attendees, participants in the Hall of Patriots; Right: Ireland's Thomas Byrne.

Ireland, famously dubbed the Celtic Tiger in the 1990s, has long been seen as one the biggest EU success stories, a reputation acknowledged by the country’s former minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne. Enlargement, he explained, had brought many benefits and acted as a tremendous catalyst across the board, including areas such as education and trade.

“I think Ireland is proof positive that enlargement works. The investments made, work. Market access works. The building of infrastructure and especially human capital works. The opportunities presented by enlargement work. Within enlargement, Ireland effectively decided to educate itself. We went from a situation where our people were not very highly educated … to one where we placed [high] in OECD rankings, that has changed dramatically.”

Byrne also talked about the economic effects in the early 1990s.

“The single market turbocharged our economy particularly in the ‘90s, proving that investing in a location that once might have been considered on the periphery of Europe [made sense] and could be served effectively, efficiently and even profitably.”

The conference also focused on what many proponents see as an absolute necessity for the future, if now dogged by uncertainty: further enlargement, the further continuation of the European project precisely in contrast to Russia’s grim and illegal war against Ukraine. Had processes been agreed and accelerated, it seemed to hang in the air, things might have gone differently. Had additional expansion not stalled – albeit for a myriad of complex and interacting factors – in the years after (when only Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and Croatia acceded in 2013 and Great Britain left after Brexit) the future might have been different.

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Andrius Kubilius: MEP and former prime minister of Lithuania - twice.

MEP and former prime minister of Lithuania Andrius Kubilius called his country’s own accession back in 2004 “a miracle” and shared former Czechia government minister Stefan Füle’s conviction that enlargement is the European Union’s greatest and most effective tool or instrument, especially when talking about neighbouring relations. He outlined enlargement as the way forward, stating “Non-enlargement only leads to a geopolitical crisis. Taking care of its immediate neighbourhood is the most important geopolitical mission of the EU.”

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Left: Czechia's Minister for European Affairs Martin Dvořák.

The current Minister for European Affairs Martin Dvořák allowed that for years following its own joining the Czech Republic shared some of the blame for waning EU enthusiasm, generating a fair amount of euroscepticism in successive governments - arguably eroding the standing of Brussels at least among part of the Czech populace and electorate. Nevertheless, he outlined Czechia’s accession overall as a success story. Back in 2003, some 77 percent of Czechs voted overwhelmingly to join, even if those numbers had dipped in years that followed. He discussed some of the impact membership had brought, suggesting Czechia was now on the verge of becoming a net contributor, which he indicated left some politicians uneasy.

“I am not saying that [being a net contributor] will be easy I also see it as a moment of celebration, a sign that Czechia has ‘made it’!... Being a member of the EU leaves a deep sense of shared values, solidarity and mutual respect. Through initiatives such as Erasmus, Erasmus+ and Horizon Europe, Czech students and professionals have been offered new opportunities to exchange ideas with their counterparts across the continent. These interactions have enriched relationships not only at our universities but have also contributed to a sense of European identity.”

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Even if we are all members of the same club, the perception of Brussels varies among individual member states: some, such as Ireland, Thomas Byrne made clear, were far more positive while in others are more critical or the relationship is more strained. The rise of populism around Europe hand-in-hand with unscrupulous politicking has not helped: populists looking to corner the protest vote and voter grievance, have more often than nought turned Brussels into a bogeyman to be cynically exploited as a threat ahead of national elections, as well as every crisis or turning point – discounting or rejecting the many benefits and overall transformation membership has brought. On this point, many observers and participants at the conference agreed: more communication and fair reporting than ever is required. Emphasising a commitment to shared values such as democracy and solidarity remains extremely important, as well as - through education - highlighting the road that real progress takes.

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Not just any day: high level hitters on past and current policy took part at the recent EU anniversary conference at CU on 8 April 2024.

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Left: Former EU commisioner Dimitris Avramopoulos; Right: Czechia's former minister for European Affairs,  Stefan Füle.

Photo: Jan Kolský

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