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On this Day, in 2004: the four Visegrad countries joined the EU in a historic enlargement to the east

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On May 1, 2004, the so-called “Visegrad 4” (V4) countries of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary were part of the 10 European nations to become EU member states in the bloc’s historic enlargement to the east.

In the wake of 1989 and the successive collapse of communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe, the path forward for the V4 countries was not universally clear.

The legacy of the 20th century and communism deeply impacted the social makeup and governance of these countries, further emphasizing the long path that lay ahead, and the often painful reforms necessary in joining the EU.

The long road to accession

The EU for its own part, was all too willing to take in these emergent democracies. Outlined in the foundational Maastricht Treaty of 1992, the EU is open to “any European State which respects the values referred to in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them” (currently TEU Article 49). However, as stipulated, any country joining must fulfill specific criteria.

Included in these are the “Copenhagen criteria,” where any country must adhere to certain “political”, “economic” and “legislative” norms, and furthermore the so-called acquis communautaire or legal harmonization with EU legislation. For the countries of Central Europe, who in 1991 created the Visegrad Group to pool resources and fast-track their join accession, meeting these criteria would lead to a process of radical reformation on all levels.

The prospect of joining the EU came with a degree of uncertainty, but for some more than others. Slovakia in particular very nearly slipped back into authoritarianism with the rule of Vladimir Mečiar, who consolidated power in 1994 and quickly drew international criticism for his “autocratic” leadership and isolationist policy.

His utilization of heavy-handed political tactics such as kidnapping and even murder, was facilitated through the Slovak secret police and Mečiar’s own connections to organized crime. This period marked a great setback in Slovakia’s ambition to accede to the EU, and join the greater European community.

Though Slovakia may be taken as an extreme case, the other V4 countries each had their own unique challenges inspired by a tumultuous 20th century. The shock of “market transition” hit the economies of these ex-communist countries especially hard, making it difficult to comply with EU standards. A crucial example here has been Poland’s long reliance on coal or their so-called “Black Gold,” a cornerstone of their energy market, which had to be amended to comply with EU energy policy.

In terms of legislative challenges, we can look to Hungary’s struggle with citizenship rights, again rooted in the nation’s past. The post-World War I Treaty of Trianon left millions of ethnic Hungarians outside of national borders, raising the question of their status as both citizens of Hungary and now of the EU. On acceding to the EU, Hungary was required to address this question and limit the citizenship status of “kin-nationals” in compliance with Schengen policy.

In many ways, the Czech Republic was one of the strongest accession candidates in V4, though not without needed reform. As with its fellow V4 countries, key changes were needed to finally break with the communist legacy, notably establishing a formal law governing the civil service.

Despite the various hardships, on May 1, 2004, the accession criteria and EU membership was officially granted to all Visegrad states, along with six other nations mostly hailing from Central and Eastern Europe (Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Cyprus, and Malta). The accession was hailed as a reunion of East and West, turning a new leaf in the history of these countries, and bringing the EU one step closer to uniting Europe.

How far have we come?       

It is impossible to assess the progress of the V4 countries by the same metrics of success established on their accession; between 2004 and today both Europe and the world have changed immeasurably.

The multiple crises in this period have, at different points, brought EU members closer together, and driven them apart, yet they have also served as a foundation for a common identity and the basis of a shared history. With that being said, we can still look to a couple ongoing points of contention which derive from the initial challenges of accession.

In Poland, the legacy of coal, and its persisting significance in the energy sector, is at the root of ongoing tensions between Poland and the EU. The continued operation of the Turów mine, which is in breach of EU environmental policy and a threat to Poland’s Czech neighbors, has garnered broad criticism. Though largely resolved, this case illustrates the high social and economic stakes which remain in the Polish coal industry.

Similarly, Hungary, under PM Viktor Orbán, has faced continual conflict with the EU over rule of law and the question of sovereignty in the Union. Yet again, history and the “long shadow” of Trianon have played a key role in the political platform of Orbán and his struggle with Brussels.

However, today, faced by a new European war, the value of community and collective action should be all the more apparent. While differences persist between the EU and members of the V4 countries, the times call for unity and demonstrate the great privilege that is EU membership.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.

By Nathan Alan-Lee

Nathan is a research assistant working with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and a PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He completed his Masters degree in European studies at the Jagiellonian University, focusing on party politics in Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, he is pursuing a study of politicisation and partisan influence in society, emphasising memory and historical revisionism.