|by Giles Goodall, Liberal Democrat European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England and a member of the European Movement’s National Council///
Caught up in our hokey-cokey debate about whether we should be in or out of the EU, we Brits often miss the bigger picture in Europe. Nowhere is this truer than in the UK’s myopic debate about ‘migrants’ from ‘eastern Europe’.
25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and a decade after ten countries from central and eastern Europe joined the EU club, reuniting our continent after the end of the Cold War is probably the EU’s biggest single success story.
It’s hard to overstate the changes that Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have undergone since they became EU members on 1 May 2004 – and that they had to go through prior to 2004 to qualify for EU entry in the first place. Three of them used to be in the Soviet Union and one in Yugoslavia. Today, they are vibrant democracies with healthy market economies.
The (mis)fortunes of Ukraine provide a sad but timely contrast with those former Eastern Bloc countries – such as Poland – which joined the EU. In 1990, Ukraine and Poland’s GDP per person were almost the same. Today, Poland’s is 3.3 times larger. And while EU GDP as a whole is only just recovering its pre-2008 financial crisis levels, Poland’s has climbed by 16% in real terms.
But it’s not just economies which have changed, crucial as that is both to the newest members and to the ‘old’ EU members, which benefit from increased trade and investment opportunities. Stable parliamentary democracy is now the order of the day too, along with respect for minority rights.
Before Slovakia joined the EU, members of its Hungarian-speaking minority experienced regular threats from populist politicians. Today, their rights are protected thanks to strict EU membership criteria. Likewise, LGBT communities in much of central and eastern Europe now have legal protection against discrimination for the first time in their history, under EU laws their governments had to implement in order to join.
One of the biggest ironies of the UK’s current debate about free movement is that ‘EU migration’ is a direct consequence of this great achievement – and major success for British foreign policy, which has always favoured EU ‘enlargement’. Quite beside the clear benefits for the UK of free movement, how can we now threaten to put up a no entry sign to countries we pushed the EU to admit in the first place?
Instead, we should be celebrating the transformation of the EU’s members in central and eastern Europe and the contribution their citizens make to Britain’s economy and society – as well as celebrating the success of our own policies in this wonderful achievement.
Author : European Movement UK