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Analysis From Washington -- Expanding The EU, Transforming The EU

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 13 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union is transforming itself by expanding itself, even though most current members and many of those now applying to join have denied that fact. And this transformation may even threaten the survival of the kind of EU both say they want.

Such a development, true of every organization going through a radical increase in size, has been much in evidence this week as the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, appears set to announce today (Wednesday) that the organization is prepared to engage six more countries on fast track negotiations for membership.

These six -- Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and Malta -- will join six others -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus -- which began such talks with the EU in March 1998. When these 12 countries become members over the next decade, they will change the face of the European Union as it exists today.

Most of the new applicants were occupied by the Soviet Union and had communist governments until very recently, a very different history than most of the current member states and a legacy which these countries are still struggling to overcome.

Indeed, a major reason that many of these states are seeking to join the EU is to get help in this process as well as to gain a kind of a certification that they are now permanently part of the West and that there will not be any revision of the 1989/1991 settlement.

And consequently, the leaders of these countries have presented their accession as an indication of how much they have changed and will change rather than discussed the ways in which their membership will change the organization itself.

At the same time, many of the current members have adopted the same stance, at least in public. They have presented the expansion of the EU as a means to spread the values of the core members over a larger number and to help bring the new members up to their current standards.

The reasons that both groups have taken this position are obvious and to a certain extent true. The countries of Eastern Europe do want to move toward West European standards, and the West Europeans do feel an obligation to help them recover from their pasts.

But at the same time, such a dramatic expansion in membership over such a short time will inevitably have consequences for the organization as a whole as well as for both its new and old members.

For the European Union as a whole, the new members will have almost as many votes and hence almost as large a voice as the current ones, and consequently, they may seek to push the organization in new directions. At the very least, they are likely to insist that the current members live up to their commitments to provide assistance to the new ones.

For the new members, the possibility of wielding such clout in support of themselves may very likely lead them to form a kind of caucus with the EU, one that could heighten some of the divides that exist within that organization now as well as create some new ones. Such divisions could mean that the EU may not move as quickly toward the tighter union many currently predict.

And for the old members, such possibilities may lead some current members to try to slow down the process of including new ones lest they be confronted by a challenge they cannot control. To the extent that happens, the applicants on the fast track may not find it as smooth as they had expected.

But this possibility of the transformation of the European Union may have even larger consequences, ones already becoming visible in Great Britain. And these include ever more questions about the utility of the EU as an institution and even about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU and allying itself more closely with the United States and Canada.

So far, such voices are being raised only there and only at the margins of the British political system. But as the possible impact of new members on the EU becomes more obvious and even more as new members begin to join, these voices are likely to become larger in Britain and to be heard elsewhere as well.

And consequently, as has happened with other organizations that have grown beyond their original mandate and design, the EU may find itself threatened by its own growth and success. At the very least, it is likely to be a very different institution than it is today.