Washington, 18 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Declining support within member countries of the European Union for its expansion highlights the inherent tensions between broadening the membership of any particular international group as opposed to deepening its meaning for those who are already members.
The European Union's own Eurobarometer poll released in Brussels on 17 July shows that support for the enlargement of the EU has declined in statistically significant amounts in Italy, Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. And it has fallen as well albeit by a smaller amount in Germany and Belgium. As a result, there are now clear popular majorities against enlargement in Germany, France, and Austria.
At the same time, the poll found increases in public support for enlargement in Great Britain and Ireland. In the latter country, the poll showed that 59 percent of the population now believes the EU should take in new members. And overall, support for enlargement across the EU now stands at 43 percent, down one percentage point from an earlier Eurobarometer sample taken last fall.
These shifts in sentiment are relatively small and come at a time when the issue of EU expansion is not at the center of public discussion at the present time. As a result, they may not point to a significant shift in public attitudes either in overall support for enlargement or even suggest that any one member government is likely to change its position on this question.
But nonetheless behind these popular attitudes is a fundamental divide at both the public and governmental levels about the enlargement of this or any other international organization. Some existing members clearly believe that they will benefit more if the organization expands, increasing its size relative to other actors on the international scene and thus making member states more influential.
Other current members, however, take just the opposite position. They fear that expansion will either impose new burdens on them in that they will be called upon to pay for the bringing of the new members up to the standards of the organization, or that enlargement may dilute the meaning of the institution they are part of by reducing its operational principles to the lowest common denominator.
Because of its aspirations to become a genuine union of states, the EU is especially likely to be the subject of such debates because both supporters and opponents can point to very real costs and benefits involved in any decision about whether to take in new members. And those countries which are already inside know how much the union has already changed because of new members admitted in the past.
But other international organizations, such as NATO, face a similar problem. If they expand, they may either become a more significant actor on the international scene or they may lose their original meaning as current members are forced to modify the organization in the process of taking in new members.
That is what happened when NATO enlarged itself to include the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. Not only did the alliance explicitly say that it would not base certain weapons systems in the new members, but it gave Russia a voice if not a veto in some of the alliance's central councils. Debates about further expansion are thus likely to reflect the tensions between those who would broaden the institution by taking in new members and those who would deepen it by seeking to build up ties among current ones.
The existence of such debates is certain to be exploited by those outsiders who do not want the institution involved to flourish. Some will simply oppose expansion openly, concerned that growth by itself will make either the EU or NATO more significant than it was in the past.
But other outsiders who oppose these institutions may take a different tack, promoting or at least not obstructing expansion precisely in order to force the international groups they oppose to change themselves by growing in size. And that opposition, which may look to some like support, is likely to also play a role in the public debates on expansion within the current member states.
As a result of these complexities, the poll numbers in support or in opposition of expansion are likely to move up and down. And the governments that must make the decision about expansion are thus likely to find themselves in a situation where polling data will not provide any easy answer as to what is the best course for either individual countries or the organizations of which they are members.