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Analysis: EU Welcomes New Members, But Where Is The Enthusiasm?

By Ulrich Buechsenschuetz

(Click here to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.)

Ten new countries will join the European Union on 1 May: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In figures, the event means the addition of some 83 million new EU citizens to the current 378 million, making the 25-member union a huge, complex, and economically powerful global player that accounts for about one-quarter of the world's economic output.

In the loftier language of the EU, the enlargement is "a historic opportunity to unite Europe peacefully after generations of division and conflict," which "will extend the EU's stability and prosperity to a wider group of countries, consolidating the political and economic transition that has taken place in Central and Eastern Europe since 1989" (see

The new union's architects also hope that by pushing its borders beyond the former Iron Curtain, the EU will not only achieve peace and stability in Europe but also gain global influence. Such a union could eventually meet the challenges of both economic globalization and global terrorism, the enlarged EU's crafters hope.

At present, it is impossible to know whether the EU will eventually grow into a federal state or remain a family of sovereign states that are bound together by common economic rather than political interests. Early enthusiasm for enlargement and the visionary period appear to have been eclipsed by popular reticence.

Recent opinion polls suggest that public support for the enlargement is waning among current and acceding member states alike. One such poll was conducted in March by Austria's IMAS polling institute and included 6,000 respondents from Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. It concluded the following:

* 42 percent of Poles are convinced the enlargement will benefit their country, while 33 percent remain unconvinced of the advantages.

* In Hungary, 34 percent are optimistic and 27 percent regard the expansion with skepticism.

* In the Czech Republic, 35 percent of the public is optimistic and 33 percent skeptical about the benefits of expansion.

* 46 percent of Austrians are skeptical of expansion and 24 percent favor it.

* Germans are even more critical, with 47 percent skeptical of the enlargement and 20 percent supporting it.

The IMAS poll highlights two aspects of the EU enlargement. For representatives of the governments and the economic sectors among older EU countries, enlargement is widely regarded as a major opportunity for economic expansion. But for the broader populations so often influenced by the low-brow reporting of tabloid newspapers, the opening of the borders presents a threat to their jobs -- and not only among states bordering the acceding countries, such as Austria or Germany. Ed Vulliamy noted in "The Observer" of 11 April: "Suddenly, our new partner citizens in the EU -- those same people whose deliverance from Communism, wrought by their own bravery, we celebrated 14 years ago -- have become potential 'benefit tourists' (Daily Mail), agents of 'social upheaval' (Financial Times), a 'menace' (the Mail again) to our social services, a horde of gypsies, or a 'flood tide' (Daily Express) of 'millions of immigrants' (the Mail again). Government talk is not of liberty or union, but of 'habitual residence requirements' and 'employment registration certificates.'"

Recent opinion polls suggest that public support for the enlargement is waning among current and acceding member states alike.
But it is not only the largely unfounded fear of immigrant flows that has prompted some politicians in the older member states to turn populist. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently slammed calls by German industrial leaders to move facilities to the future member states as "unpatriotic." To avert such moves, he called on acceding countries not to seek to attract investments through low corporate tax rates. He also warned the newer EU members not to spend the taxes paid in the large industrial countries, such as Germany, on infrastructure projects in the less-developed new member states.

On the other hand, the growing skepticism in the new member states about the enlargement is mainly due to such attempts by the larger members such as France or Germany to bully them into giving up their economic advantages and their sovereignty on foreign-policy issues.

Negotiations on a European constitutional treaty have presented another sobering reminder for new EU members. Poland, the largest country joining the EU on 1 May, felt cheated by the EU's big players when the voting rights that it was granted by the 2001 Treaty of Nice were again restricted in the draft constitution. Although a new double-majority system might ensure to some extent that the EU's smaller countries are not so easily outvoted, many Poles still feel betrayed. No wonder, then, that anti-EU populists such as the radical leader of the Self-Defense party in Poland, Andrzej Lepper, are doing so well in the polls.

There are also the Euro-skeptic torchbearers like Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who in an article for "Mlada fronta Dnes" of 22 April claimed that EU membership entails a loss of independence for the Czech Republic. Czechs "must do everything we can so we are not lost in the EU, so that our unique existence over 1,000 years will not crumble and be lost," Klaus wrote.

While there is little basis for such fears, they hint at what an enormous challenge it will be for the EU to integrate new members. Integration might be easy in the EU's core sectors, such as the economy, tax policy, or customs. However, a significant dream of some current members will remain a dream for some time to come -- creating a joint EU foreign and security policy for all 25 members. The rift between much of "old Europe" and "new Europe" over Iraq has clearly demonstrated the difficulty of attaining one of the main aims of a joint foreign and security policy for the EU: creating an effective counterweight to the United States.

This is a question of political unity and of military power. Neither will the new EU members, from the Baltics to the Balkans, surrender their view that the United States is a necessary safeguard against Russian pretensions; nor will the EU reach U.S. levels of military expenditure anytime soon.

In other words, at least for the time being, EU enlargement will bring about less change than one might have expected.