The EU has gradually expanded from the original six members that formed the ECSC in 1951 and then the EEC in 1957, becoming, by 2007, an organisation with 27 members across central and eastern Europe-including former Communist states. Croatia became the 28th member of the EU in 2013, indicating the significant growth of the EU compared with the 15 members before 2004. Various reasons for the expansion of the EU have came from economic motives, geopolitical motives and for political reasons.
One key reason behind the expansion of the EU is due to the geopolitical interests of the West, ultimately, to contain Russia and prevent it to rise as a global power again. The idea of encircling Russia, by incorporating Russia’s ‘near backyard’ into the EU, has remained a preoccupation of America, who supported the project. Examples can be seen in the accession of Latvia , Estonia and Lithuania in 2004. In addition, when countries become a member of the EU, they apply to become a member of NATO, furthering the geopolitical motive of containment. The major factor of EU expansion, for geo-strategic calculations, has had a Cold War dimension. Countries have also turned to the EU out of a belief that membership would give them protection vis-á-vis Moscow since the end of the Cold War. For example, the Baltic states, several countries in the former Soviet Bloc and Finland-who joined in 1995-were advocating EU enlargement due to the residual dangers to their and the rise of Putin’s Russia, determined to maintain Russian global power. Therefore, due to the collapse of communism in 1991, the growing pressure from former communist states to join the EU has made the EU seek to replace the influence of the Soviet Union by that of the EU.
Another reason for further expansion of the EU is for economic reasons; western European countries benefit from the EU with lower tariffs, thus, when Eastern European countries joined the EU (Latvia and Estonia in 2004), Western-European countries gained access to newer markets that gave them significant benefits to their economies. They also became a magnet for young often low-skilled labour to fill a skills gap in their economies. Poland, Bulgaria and Eastern-European countries benefit from money being sent home from migrants to the more richer west. Poland has had access to the EU development fund as well as access to the low costs of imports. Furthermore, Eastern-European countries export food and agriculture to western-European countries-illustrating the economic benefits for the continued expansion of the EU. The desire for a larger internal market, to foster growth and prosperity, has been in line with the idea of creating a continent-wide free-trade bloc and a common market-explaining why existing members have been keen to recruit new members to the EU.
Thirdly, EU enlargement has been advocated for political reasons, mainly, for integration and turning countries with fragile political systems into liberal democracies. The key behind EU expansion has been to export democracy, human rights, making member states slowly transition into western style liberal democracies. This was particularly important after the former eastern block countries left the Soviet sphere of control. However, this theory of eastern-European countries transitioning into western liberal democracies has been increasingly challenged in recent years. This has been seen with the rise of right wing extremist parties in eastern-European countries, moving to an illiberal one-party system such as in Hungary and Poland and most notably, in Germany with the AFD in the German Parliament-the AFD, for the first time, have gained seats in the German Parliament.