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EU: How Will Europe Change After Eastern Accessions?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's Copenhagen summit, which opens tomorrow, is taking a step into the future. It is expected to issue membership invitations to 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries. From that point on, Europe will be permanently changed. Conversely, the union itself will be altered in character by the flood of countries joining it.

Prague, 11 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- "Historic" is an overused word, but it can well be applied to the European Union's Copenhagen summit. The two-day meeting is scheduled to issue formal invitations to 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries to join the union in 2004. This moment will put the seal on a new shape for Europe nearly 60 years after the continent was shattered by war and subsequently divided by the Iron Curtain.

Membership in the European Union will impact every aspect of life in the accession countries. In economics, for instance, there will be a vast single market stretching from Tallinn on the Baltic to Nicosia on the Mediterranean.

In politics, there will be hundreds of new Eastern deputies in the European Parliament, all trying to prove their relevance to their home constituencies and to the union alike. And there is the army of technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels, who will be making decisions directly affecting daily life in the East.

Less tangible, but just as important, there will be issues of national sovereignty to resolve. Each new EU member has agreed to cede some powers to the bloc.

Then there is the question of loyalty and the development of bonds of trust and common purpose with other EU member states.

As Czech political commentator Petr Drulak of the Institute of International Relations in Prague put it: "Accession will bring with it a tremendous change. It's really difficult to forecast how people will think about it, how they will get used to it. Definitely, it is something which changes the way we think about politics, about society, and about everything which is connected with that. So it will be a huge change. It will take many years before we get used to it."

The question of building "European" loyalty is a controversial one. Nationalists and others who oppose the European project say there are, indeed, Hungarians and Germans, Portuguese and Slovaks. They say the idea of a "European" does not really exist.

One is reminded of the medical doctor in a novel by the 19th-century English writer Thomas Hardy, who says: "I have examined every part of the human body, and never yet found the place where a soul lodges. Where is it?"

Supporters of the idea of a European "soul" would, by contrast, say one of the European Union's great achievements is that in the past 50 years, it has been able to create tender but strengthening filaments of commonality and trust between countries previously at war with one another.

All traces of stereotyping are hard to eradicate, however, and it's fair to say that among the populations of the established EU countries in the West, there has sometimes been a prejudice against the Eastern, mostly Slavic, candidates.

Professor James Waltson of the American University in Rome noted, however, that this form of prejudice is not exclusively directed eastward. He recalled that, in the past, there was "nervousness" about Ireland and the poorer countries of southern Europe coming into the EU but that this feeling passed with time. And he said of the present enlargement: "There is an unjustified fear, because there are an awful lot of Poles and other East Europeans already in the EU, and to bring them into the community and to make them equal members, I suspect that at that point, the anti-Slav feeling, which is certainly strong in Italy, as it is in Austria and Germany, will reduce, because one hopes their economies and their methods will become 'European.' They will become integrated members, so that problem will go away."

There is also the question of how such a big intake of newcomer countries into the EU will change the character of the bloc itself. Some commentators have speculated that the Easterners will move the EU closer to the United States, in that most of the peoples trapped behind the Iron Curtain after 1945 looked for more than a generation to the United States for its inspiration, both politically and culturally.

Drulak said: "That can be expected, because if you look at NATO, the Central European countries seem to be close to the American position on many issues. They are a bit closer to the U.S.A. than some EU countries."

But Drulak said the relative weight of the newcomers will not be enough to tip the balance, and he believes that EU policy formulation will remain in the hands of the big members, notably Germany and France. "There is just one big country among the Central European countries, which is Poland, and EU foreign policy will be very much shaped by the big players on the European scene, such as Germany, France, England, and to some extent Italy and Spain, and then Poland will be their partner. It's quite obvious that a country like the Czech Republic will be in the second rank, as Belgium is today," Drulak said.

Despite everything, it seems sheer size still counts.