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Europe: EU Promises Most, Delivers Least To The East

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 11 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - Of all of Western Europe's multilateral groups, the European Union has promised the most and delivered the least to Central and Eastern Europe in the eight years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Nor there is much prospect in the near future of the EU matching its rhetoric with a realization of the East's hopes for early membership. That discouraging assessment is widely shared not only by many historians and analysts, but also by some high EU officials -- although they will not say so in their own names.

Those officials in Brussels who do talk for attribution strongly deny the EU's record is worse than the other West European multilaterals. One of the more eloquent among them is Louisewise van der Laan, spokeswoman for EU Commissioner Hans van den Broek, who handles relations with the 10 Eastern candidates (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia).

She says that unlike NATO, which has so far invited only three Central European nations -- the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles -- to accede, "the most important thing we've done is to make clear that we expect all 10 applicant countries to become members of the EU. Considering that eight years ago these countries were, so to speak, our enemies, that's an amazing political gesture."

Why joining the EU is more complicated than joining NATO

As evidence of the EU's good faith, Van der Laan points to its mid-December summit in Luxembourg, where leaders of the group's 15 member states are due to announce the start of membership talks early next year with some or all of the 10 candidates. But analysts note that it will have taken the EU more than four years to do so after formally endorsing the principle of expansion to the East at a similar meeting in Copenhagen in June 1993 -- which itself came almost four years after Communism's collapse.

What's more, no one expects talks with Eastern candidates to take any less time than the seven years it took to negotiate Spain and Portugal's entry in the 1980s. That adds up to the strong possibility the EU will not incorporate all Eastern candidates until two decades -- an entire generation -- after they began to ask for admission. Yet EU leaders like Germany's Helmut Kohl and France's Jacques Chirac have repeatedly promised Central European nations entry into the Union by 2000.

To the question why the EU has taken so long to act, van der Laan responds: "Joining the EU is more complicated than joining NATO or the Council of Europe. We have a very complex set of criteria: Can (the Eastern nations) compete with EU businesses? Have they adopted the (3,000 regulations) that constitute the whole body of EU legislation, which is essential to the functioning of a single market? The answer to these two questions is no. They do not (yet) meet those criteria."

Van der Laan and other EU spokesmen also point to the Union's generous assistance programs to the former Communist states -- PHARE for Central and Eastern Europe, TACIS for former Soviet republics. But analysts note a recent report by the EU's own Court of Auditors, which confirmed that much of the tens of millions of dollars spent on Eastern projects have actually been eaten up by contracts to highly paid Western consultants. Fraud and corruption have also marked the programs, the most notable case being that of an EU emissary to Moscow who used the post for personal gain. He was dismissed.

In any case, say the analysts, what the East has wanted most is trade with, not aid from, the EU. But despite a year-long negotiation over the terms of the so-called Europe Agreements the 10 Eastern candidates eventually signed with Brussels, they did not get the liberal market access they eagerly sought from their natural Western trading partners. Several EU members succumbed to domestic protectionist pressures -- especially concerning the East's critical steel, agricultural and textile exports -- and blocked generous terms.

As a sop, the highly touted Europe Agreements awarded Eastern nations periodic high-level political consultations and provided for "eventual" free trade in a number of goods and products. Britain's respected "Financial Times" daily called the accords "miserly and protectionist." They have not changed essentially since they were agreed upon in 1992.

The EU turns inward rather than outward to the East

As early as October 1990, high EU officials publicly berated their own members for hypocritical behavior toward the East. After a huge demonstration by French farmers against greater Eastern access to Western markets, Executive Commission President Jacques Delors -- himself French -- exploded angrily: "You cannot shed tears of joy for the people of Eastern Europe one day and tell them the next day that you will not buy their products!" The farmers won.

In fact, analysts say, the consistent trend in West European behavior since 1989 has been to turn inward rather than outward to the East -- in the jargon of Brussels, to "deepen" rather than "widen" EU cohesion. Two years after the fall of the Wall -- and, to no small degree, as a reaction to it -- the then 12 members of the European Community transformed themselves into a Union by signing the Maastricht Treaty. The treaty spelled out a timetable for Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), due to begin in 14 months, and laid down guidelines for future political union. Maastricht, which determined EU broad policy for the decade, had little to say about the East beyond a rhetorical flourish or two.

Reinforcing the West European inward turn was the recession that overtook much of the EU in the past several years, sending the unemployment rate soaring to an unprecedented Union-wide 10.5 percent. With more than 18 million out of work in the EU, there was little incentive for national politicians to try to persuade their publics to compete for jobs with tens of millions more in the Eastern candidate states, a direct consequence of granting them membership.

Even so ardent an advocate of expansion as Chancellor Kohl has in recent months firmly opposed any quick or large-scale enlargement. Kohl, who faces general elections next year, did so most notably at the EU's June summit in Amsterdam. At the same meeting, he also abandoned his long-time integrationist posture, systematically barring any attempt to push through basic structural and decision-making reforms necessary for the EU to function at nearly twice its present size. The reforms were deferred, at Kohl's insistence, until actual expansion begins.

The stop sign erected by the Chancellor has now created a new cleavage within a increasingly divisive EU. The split is between members which agree with Kohl -- a clear majority of from 10 to 12 -- and a significant minority of France, Belgium, Italy and one or two others, which insists that internal reforms precede expansion. With consensus necessary to begin enlargement, if the minority is not persuaded to change its mind expansion could be delayed indefinitely.

In the view of many analysts, Amsterdam was a paradigm of the EU's current parlous condition. While urgent institutional reforms were put off, its often bad-tempered negotiations managed to complete the deepening laid out by Maastricht by resolving lingering differences between France and Germany over EMU, which was not even on its agenda. But also not on the agenda, and not discussed at all, were needed reforms in the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and regional funding, which together consume four-fifths its $100 million annual budget. These issues, which touch on voters' pocketbooks and are vital to expansion, were deemed too sensitive for discussion at a highly publicized meeting.

Looking at this bleak picture, some analysts go as far as to predict a coming breakdown in the Union. They say that once EMU is launched in January 1999, basic differences among the 15 over enlargement will erupt in a paralyzing crisis. A few even argue that the crisis could turn out to be the most serious in the EU's 40-year-old history. None believe that the crisis will facilitate the eventual entry into the EU of the 10 Eastern candidates.

This is part three in a five-part series on the role of Europe's multilateral organizations in integrating Central and Eastern Europe with the West. See Europe:Has The West Embraced The East?