EU enlargement and the OECD: A new era

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The formal accession to the European Union of 10 new member states on 1 May 2004 is a defining moment in the history of Europe. The Irish Presidency was honoured to welcome the accession states as full members of the Union and to celebrate together this great event with a “Day of Welcomes”. Enlargement on this scale, from 15 to 25 members, is unprecedented in the Union’s history.

(The largest previous single wave of new entrants, not counting the six founding members, was three, with Austria, Finland and Sweden joining in 1995, and Denmark, Ireland and the UK in 1973.) While it presents clear opportunities, it also presents challenges. We are working to facilitate a smooth transition, integrating the new member states fully and effectively into the structures of the Union. At the same time, there is a focus on extending and adapting existing programmes in all policy areas to the new member states. The necessary steps are being taken to integrate them as rapidly as possible into the Lisbon strategy for economic, social and environmental reform, the Schengen Acquis on free movement of people and the economic policy co-ordination process.

No organisation understands better the problem of helping member countries with greatly different standards of living to work together than the OECD. Assisting member countries to learn from shared experience is at the heart of the OECD’s activities. The peer pressure, the quality and extent of the analyses and reviews, have all contributed to improvements in economic performance and the strengthening of social cohesion. Indeed, those four new member states of the EU which are already members of the OECD – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic – have acknowledged the invaluable role the organisation has played in their preparations for EU accession, through both dedicated programmes and their participation in the wide-ranging activities of the OECD.

However, no EU members, old or new, have any illusions that all the hard work has been done. Delivering security and prosperity, continuing reform efforts, enhancing education systems and creating a cleaner environment are all daunting, ongoing policy goals. Globalisation presents new opportunities which can assist us in reaching those goals, but these opportunities can only be fully realised if the international community has the will to work together to establish accepted codes of behaviour. The relevance of the OECD in this context is widely recognised, and the organisation can make a real difference.

It has been gratifying to hear Ireland cited as an example of how to achieve economic and social progress. Obviously, the skills and adaptability of our greatest asset, our people, contributed hugely to the remarkable development of recent years. However, membership of the EU and the OECD was critical to our success. Through the OECD, Ireland, like all member countries large and small, has been able to identify areas where reform would make a real difference to performance, in labour markets, entrepreneurship, governance, public/private partnerships, and so on. The part played by the OECD in the evolution of the Irish education system, for instance, was an indispensable element of our growth.

EU expansion is a reminder that international organisations have to adapt in a world of rapid change. The OECD is demonstrating that it both recognises this and will act upon it, thanks in part to landmark reports by OECD Ambassadors Jorma Julin of Finland and Seiichiro Noboru of Japan on the critical areas of reform, enlargement and outreach to non-OECD countries. These studies will assist ministers at their Council meeting in May to take decisions on the future direction of the OECD based on a very clear common vision of where we are and where we must go.

In celebrating EU enlargement at this time, we also stand on the threshold of a new era in the evolution of the OECD. There is no lack of opportunities and challenges for us all.


Julin, J. (2003), “The OECD: Securing the Future”, in OECD Observer No 240/241, December 2003.

©OECD Observer No 243, May 2004

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