Pros and cons of joining the club

30th April 2004 at 01:00
Yojana Sharma charts the reasons why nations have chosen to join the ever-expanding EU

The EU's expansion from 15 to 25 states tomorrow, May 1, is the fifth and most ambitious enlargement since the European Community was founded in 1957 with six members. Each enlargement has had costs and benefits for new members, but the increasing political clout of the EU is indisputable.

The UK, Ireland and Denmark joined in 1973, when the European Economic Community, as the group was called, was mainly a common market for agricultural and industrial goods. The UK secured a bigger market for its export-led manufacturing (and financial services) at the expense of a high price for agricultural produce and the loss of its preferential trade with the Commonwealth.

Until the mid-1980s, Britain thought it had got a poor deal, paying too much for mounting butter mountains and milk lakes. As a wealthy country it has always been a net contributor. However, European membership helped it find a new world role after the decline of its empire, and greater bargaining clout in international trade negotiations helped open up other markets around the world.

Ireland and Denmark depended on the UK for much of their trade and could not afford to stay out once Britain joined. Denmark and the UK have always been ambivalent about Europe; less so Ireland, which is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the EU's regional and social funds, as well as agricultural subsidies. "For Ireland, the main benefit was it was able to break out of the neo-colonial economic relationship with Britain," says Professor Jim Rollo, director of the European Institute at Sussex University.

Greece joined in 1981, after relatively easy negotiations. France, in particular, saw Europe's roots in Greek civilisation. Other countries believed membership would anchor Greek democracy, which had been re-established in 1974 after seven years of military dictatorship.

When Spain and Portugal joined in 1986, the negotiations were arduous because Spain was seen as a dangerous agricultural competitor for Italy and France, while Germany and Britain feared an influx of migrants - wrongly it turned out. They came in eager to leave their years of dictatorship behind and renegotiated poor accession terms - to gain subsidies for farmers producing citrus fruit and Spanish onions, for instance. French and Italian fears over agricultural competition proved exaggerated, but membership has hugely increased rural incomes and given Spain renewed confidence on the world stage. It has also prompted the overhaul of the EU's expensive agricultural policy.

Austria, Finland and Sweden began relatively trouble-free negotiations in the late 1980s, fearing the 1992 completion of a single European market would lead to a Fortress Europe that excluded their goods. Finland and Sweden were already paying high domestic agricultural subsidies, so farming costs barely increased when the three joined in 1995. Their main consideration was to be involved in EU decisions and their membership tipped the balance away from the Southern agricultural economies towards the industrial north. They are net contributors to the EU.

The accession of 10 countries: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia tomorrow will increase the EU area by 34 per cent and add 75 million new consumers.

But the influx has required the overhaul of EU treaties to include a constitution.

Since the late 1990s, the EU has evolved into a huge, complex organisation with its own monetary union, foreign policy, security policy and justice policies: the newcomers must comply with 80,000 pages of existing EU laws.

The fear of an influx of migrants to existing members may prove as fanciful as fears of Spanish migration in 1986: there were fewer than 3,000 applications a year by the early 1990s.

The new states, though net beneficiaries, will get a tiny fraction of what Greece, Spain and Portugal received in the past. The cost of reunification has been calculated by one Euro-MP to be around pound;67 billion for the existing 15 member states, roughly one-tenth of what Germany spent on its reunification.

For more information on what the European Union does, see: Yojana Sharma is a former Brussels correspondent

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