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EU: Survey Shows Attitudes Not Always Welcoming Toward Candidates

  • Breffni O'Rourke

A new survey shows citizens in Western Europe have very different views about which Central and Eastern European countries should be allowed to join the European Union in future. Hungary is the country most welcome to join, but the Balkan states -- such as Albania, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- are the least popular.

Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A survey carried out by a major German polling company indicates that if European Union citizens had their say, the eastward expansion of the EU would be very limited indeed.

The survey, done by the GFK company of Nuremburg, shows that the only candidacies with the majority support of the Western European populace are, first of all, Hungary, followed by the Czech Republic and Poland. The Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania just make it with 50 percent support for their memberships.

The rest of the countries covered in the survey are unpopular in one degree or another. For instance, Romania has an overall 44 percent support, while only 39 percent of those surveyed believe Turkey should be allowed to become an EU member.

The least popular are the Balkan states of Albania, Macedonia, Yugoslavia (Serbia-Montenegro), and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Only one-third of Western Europeans would allow them in as EU members. In Germany, that figure plummets to just 10 percent approval.

What do these figures mean? Do they mean that the huge expansion process being undertaken by the European Commission is illegitimate, lacking in democratic consent? Certainly, if referendums on the merits of individual candidate nations were held in current EU countries, it appears that a number of them would fail.

However, formal legitimacy for the enlargement process stems from the fact that the parliaments of current member states must approve the admission of each new member.

The present expansion plans foresees a first wave of 10 mostly Eastern and Central European countries joining the EU in 2004, with a second wave of at last three more candidates by 2007. That would bring EU membership to almost 30 nations -- double its size today.

Senior analyst Peter Zervakis of the Bonn-based ZEI think tank says that a democratic deficit on the question of expansion is not new: "The union project, this modernization of the European continent, has always been an elitist project. It is more or less being handled behind the curtains and is being dealt with in the diplomatic arena."

To the average EU citizen, Zervakis says the arguments in favor of enlargement -- couched in terms of extending stability and wealth -- seem rather abstract and have failed to capture the popular imagination. The repeated expansions of the community have also unsettled and bewildered many citizens.

"The community has enlarged in the last 20 years at such a speed that the average citizen has problems coming to terms with this ever-growing community and asks himself whether deepening, democratizing, the community should not be the first problem to be solved," Zervakis said.

In addition, a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe is still a mysterious, largely unvisited territory for many Western Europeans. As Zervakis points out, citizens in Western Europe read in the media about, for instance, the desperate conditions in eastern Poland, or about the possible exodus westward of cheap labor, and they fear the East.

Of course, similar reservations are felt by Easterners toward the West. Although they want to share in Western prosperity, they also fear the changes coming upon them.

"There has always been a kind of expressed fear to join something unknown, something unusual, something which for local people is unusual, to join a community which actually transforms the nation state," Zervakis said.

And in the candidate countries, the level of public support for EU membership is of vital political concern. That's because candidate governments have chosen to hold referendums to gain popular mandates for membership. Based on present indications, some of those referendums will be close calls.

However, despite the mutual suspicions in East and West, a spokesman for the GFK polling firm, Mark Hofmans, sees the new statistics as reflecting broad optimism in Europe. He notes that sections of the survey deal with wider issues, such as whether the EU will one day match the power of the United States, at least in economic terms. One out of two people in Western Europe believe that it will. Hofmans said: "I think it is quite optimistic indeed if you do not take into account the Germans, because the Germans are very pessimistic. But in general, I would say that it is a relatively optimistic view."

The reason Germans are glum about the future is not clear, but it may relate to the country's poor economic situation at present. The survey shows that some 15 percent of Germans expect the European Union to weaken over the next 20 years, and 8 percent expect it to break up altogether and the euro to fail.

By contrast, the Scandinavians -- namely the Danes, Finns, and Swedes -- are, in general, the voices of optimism and positive comments about the future of Europe.

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