Prague, 30 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union will embark on its largest-ever expansion on 1 May, when it accepts 10 new members. Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia from Central Europe; the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; and Greek Cyprus and Malta in the Mediterranean will join Europe's community of nations when their accession is formalized at a ceremony in Dublin. But a new EU of 25 members raises many questions and concerns among both old and new members. Will Brussels be paralyzed by indecision, competing interests, and the inability to agree on common policy? And will the accession countries really reap the long-awaited economic and social benefits they have been promised? We also take a look today at the situation in Iraq and Uzbekistan's flagging education system.
THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
An editorial in "The Christian Science Monitor" says the EU is about to take "a historic step into the unknown" when it adds 10 new members. And as the largest expansion ever, it is already "so fraught with doubt among Europeans that many are hard pressed to remember why this was a good idea," the paper says.
The current 15 members already have a difficult time making decisions or formulating a common foreign policy on issues as crucial as the war in Iraq. Germany and France, the union's two most powerful members and its economic engines, cannot manage to keep their budget deficits in line with EU mandates.
"Admission of new members from the East just adds problems, such as more porous borders, which could look appealing to terrorists," the paper suggests. And an EU of 25 risks being stalled by "new policy worries and more languages."
Accession countries wonder whether their goods "will be supplanted by products from the West after reunification," while Western nations worry whether a deluge of labor migrants will spill across their borders.
But ultimately, the paper says, when this surplus of doubts arises, it is important to remember why European unification is a worthy goal in itself. In 1995, EU leaders declared that enlargement was a "political necessity and a historic opportunity." The initial reasons "were idealistic, coming just after the Cold War. It was a time to spread democracy and free markets with those who had been suppressed, and bring greater stability and security to more of Europe."
An editorial today in "The Guardian" says many in the often Euro-skeptical United Kingdom might view tomorrow's EU enlargement as "little cause for celebration and no little cause for anxiety."
"How will it be easier to reach a consensus in meetings which will now be 50 strong, with the head of government and foreign minister from each member country present?" the paper asks. More member states mean even more "looming battles over money and power," it says, adding: "One of the ironies of a project to make Europe more than the sum of its parts is that it has only increased the tendency of each part to see the sum from its own perspective."
But as you look to the east, "the importance of what is about to take place tomorrow grows," says "The Guardian." A new "lace curtain" will be drawn between the accession countries and Belarus and Ukraine, "creating a new line of division in Eastern Europe."
The "New Europe" being created will be "a community of small nations," the paper says. The 10 new accession countries "will not be easy to keep locked in some anteroom, while the big boys -- Germany, France and Britain -- 'pre-negotiate' heavyweight policy on the constitution and defense."
The EU of tomorrow will be "a permanent flux of temporary bargaining alliances, with which the Franco-German motor will have to come to terms," "The Guardian" says. "As the borders shift eastwards, so does Europe's center of gravity."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
An editorial ahead of EU enlargement says the union will take "another giant leap forward" when it accepts 10 new members. Over the last half-century, the EU has achieved "a period of once unimaginable peace and prosperity for its members." And following NATO's eastward expansion, "the EU's enlargement from 15 to 25 member nations represents the final lifting of the Iron Curtain."
Europe could not turn its back on "the historical and moral imperative of opening the door to their cousins to the east." And the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s "added a sense of geopolitical urgency to the matter."
But after tomorrow, the accession countries will not quite be full members of Europe. The paper says while they will "reap immediate benefits from joining a common market of 450 million people," citizens of the new member countries will not enjoy freedom of movement within the EU, nor will their farmers receive anything close to the subsidies afforded current EU agriculture producers.
"The result looks dangerously like a Europe with different tiers of citizenship," the paper says.
The promise of EU membership "has been the single greatest instrument for reform throughout Central and Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall," says "The New York Times." Former Soviet bloc states have reformed their economies, "often with painful abruptness," and have toed Brussels' line in other respects as well.
"The danger now is of a political backlash in the new member nations if high expectations are not met," it concludes.
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG
Columnist Anke Bryson says while the notion of deepening inter-European cooperation has met with much agreement, the idea of expanding the EU's scope has been somewhat contentious. She says the latest opinion polls "testify to overwhelming opposition to eastward enlargement, with fears of mass immigration and cheap wage competition looming particularly large."
"As the biggest net financial contributors to the EU, Germans are painfully aware that efforts to close the gap between the Eastern and Western economies will put a further strain on an overstretched EU budget," she says. Competition over EU aid might make Germany's "heavily subsidized eastern states [likely] to lose out to their even poorer eastern neighbors.
"While the free movement of goods, capital and labor should mean greater wealth for everybody in the long run, Germans fear that they may lose out to more dynamic and reform-friendly economies that provide a more hospitable environment for business. Yet perhaps it is exactly this sort of competition that is needed to prod the country's political decision-makers."
But even more worrying, says Bryson, is the prospect "that a 25-member union is bound to become an even more unwieldy construct -- a union that is likely to be dragged down by endless bartering, bad compromises and a bureaucratic hydrocephalus." She says: "Citizens will embrace this wider union only if it is deepened as well."
A freelance journalist specializing in Uzbek political affairs who goes under the pseudonym of Esmer Islamov discusses the deteriorating education system in Uzbekistan.
The country's "corruption-ridden educational system is a source of widespread discontent among the country's youth," he says. "Steadily decreasing government funding has sharply reduced access to higher education. And many of those who can afford comparatively high tuitions complain about a lack of interesting career opportunities.
"Increasingly, higher educational opportunities are available only to children of Uzbekistan's economic and political elite." In a country in which the average citizen subsists on $1 a day, tuition can be as much as $200 to $800 for the academic year.
Government grants for university education cover only about 38 percent of a student's expenses, says Islamov. And as a result, university enrollment has "significantly declined" since 1991, from 14 percent that year to only 6.4 percent in 2000-01.
"Corruption, fueled by underpaid staff, is rampant," Islamov says. "University applicants can pay thousands of dollars to gain admittance to Uzbekistan's most exclusive universities and institutes. Once enrolled, students often find out that good grades are available at a price. And for those not wanting to attend class, a bribe can obtain an unofficial attendance waiver." Many teachers are more than willing to take bribes to supplement their meager incomes.
Islamov says, "Given that approximately 60 percent of Uzbekistan's 26 million citizens are under the age of 25, the failure to expand educational opportunities and provide better instruction could have a destabilizing effect on Uzbekistan's development." And yet the government in Tashkent has shown no interest "in grappling with the issues."
An editorial in the London-based daily says, nine weeks before the scheduled 30 June transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition should "tread very carefully indeed." It says the "misjudgments" of the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, "and his Pentagon masters, far from steering Iraq towards freedom and democracy, have brought it to just beyond the brink of anarchy.
"After so many blunders, there are no obviously good options left. U.S. military behavior, however, often seems to be choosing the worst aspects of several bad options and combining them."
In Al-Fallujah, U.S.-led occupation forces "have been unable to defeat an insurgency their actions appear to have strengthened and spread." After the brutal mob murder of four American civilian contractors, U.S. troops could have either admitted they did not control the city or have gone in "with decisive force," risking major civilian casualties, a resurgence in Iraqi resistance and international condemnation. "What they did -- using attack helicopters, warplanes, rockets, howitzers and Gatling guns -- was kill hundreds of civilians without retaking the city."
The "Financial Times" makes two recommendations to the U.S. coalition authority. First, it says, "under no circumstances should U.S. troops go into the shrine city of [Al-] Najaf after [Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-] Sadr." To enter the holy city risks igniting Shi'a anger in Iraq and around the world. Secondly, the paper says the U.S. occupation "must exercise restraint."
The paper says the U.S. authority must hand over real decision-making power to Iraqis on 30 June. "No occupation will ever be able to resolve Iraq's many problems; Iraqis may be able to."