Global Policy Forum

Union, But Not Unanimity,


By John Darnton

New York Times
March 11, 2004

When the European Union expands eastward this spring, it will end the 65-year divide caused by the 20th century's hot and cold wars and shift the union from a plush club of 15 like-minded nations into a street bazaar of countries differing in wealth, stature and outlook. What is today a tight configuration huddled around France and Germany that seeks to offset American power will on May 1 become an amalgam of 25 highly diverse states, including eight strongly pro-American former Soviet satellites.

Therein lies a paradox. The new European Union, stretching from the rocky shores of Ireland to Poland's forest border with Ukraine, will be in a better position than ever to serve as a counterweight to the United States. Yet the incoming members look more to Washington than to Berlin and Paris.

"In historical terms it's an extraordinary moment," noted Timothy Garton Ash, an Oxford specialist in European studies. "It's been said that Europe has had a name for 2,500 years but is still in the design stage. "France and Germany have led European integration for 40 years, and now that's clearly over. We have to wrestle with the question of who is going to set the agenda for this huge, sprawling entity of 25 states and 455 million people."

Scarred by their postwar existence in the shadow of the Soviet Union, most of the new members bring a different mentality and different habits. They are apt to be suspicious of distant bureaucracy in Brussels, as they were of Moscow, but eager to receive European Union handouts. They tend to be idealistic, wanting to spread freedom and oppose totalitarianism, but also cynical about politicians and accustomed to corruption in everyday life.

"When we say Europe in Eastern Europe," said Andrei Plesu, a former Romanian foreign minister, "we usually think about something in the past, something we lost and have to regain. "It's something in an old, faded photograph, the world between the two World Wars, a nostalgia, a longing. In the West, Europe is a project. In the East, it's a memory." For both groups it is a bit of a chore.

In Eastern Europe, the once paradisiacal vision of "rejoining Europe" has lost its sheen, whittled down by years of slightly humiliating negotiations to join the union and new fears of being swamped by the powerful West. In Western Europe, support for the enlargement is tempered by concerns that the Eastern countries will drain away wealth and jobs, complicating problems of economic stagnation and tensions over illegal immigration. The door is being opened reluctantly, with a shoulder-shrugging sense of noblesse oblige. "We're not in a very good mood right now," said Olivier Duhamel, a professor at the í‰cole des Sciences Politiques in Paris. "We're worried about unemployment, immigration and the French identity, and when you put all that together, you fear enlargement. The only people talking about a bigger Europe these days are those talking against it."

In the formerly Communist East, the sense of anticlimax is almost palpable. "Entering the E.U. was always a dream," said Maciej Karpinski, a film producer with Polish Television, "but now that it's here it just doesn't feel substantial." Few people in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and other new member countries would go so far as to try to slam the door closed. Many still see the advantages — especially the young, who will now be able to travel to the West more easily — no passport required, just a quick flash of a national ID card — and to join student exchange programs. But those of working age are particularly bitter that almost all of the 15 current Western members are imposing restrictions to keep out Eastern workers for several years. Others worry that Western products will push their own off the shelves or raise prices or push small-scale local farmers into oblivion. As a result, May 1 — a day for workers observed under Communism with mandatory parades and lackluster banner-waving — is not likely to see a spontaneous outpouring of celebration. Even some dramatic official plans have fizzled, like one in Warsaw that would have wrapped the skyscraper called the Palace of Culture, infamous as Stalin's gift to postwar Poland, in gold.

Europeans have waked up to the fears and palpable differences that arise when borders come down, as seen in the unification of East and West Germany, where after more than a decade, disparities in wealth and spirit persist. Up to now the belief in Europe was that as in Germany, most economic transformation would flow largely in one direction, from west to east. The unstated assumption was that the 380 million Westerners would be at the helm and that the 75 million Easterners would be lucky enough to be on board. But now West Europeans worry that too many Easterners may sink the boat. They envision poor immigrants coming the other way, flooding their cities and burdening their bountiful welfare systems.

At the same time, the West is apprehensive about the combative mentality displayed by battle-hardened anti-Communist dissidents in many East European elites, and both sides worry about the political schizophrenia of "old Europe" and "new Europe" that emerged over the war in Iraq. Poland, with a history of rebellion and its strong pro-American feelings, made plain at a failed summit conference in December that it does not expect to be treated as a second-class state. "We can't put up with an E.U. in which France and Germany have the final say," said Adam Michnik, the former Polish dissident who now runs Gazeta Wyborcza, the major daily. "And we don't want an anti-American E.U." That position springs, he and many others insist, not from blind lockstep obedience to Washington, but rather from a distinct East European sensibility.

Petr Pithart, president of the Senate in the Czech Republic, described it this way: "Why do we care about solidarity between Europe and the United States? It's the experience of two totalitarian regimes — the Nazis and the Communists. We're conscious of the fragility of democracy. That sense doesn't exist in Western Europe." In Western Europe, said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University's Prague center, "it's anti-intellectual to think in a simplistic way about good and evil. Here, we say we know what's good and evil — it is simple. We've lived under it. We have a less foggy view of the basics."

It is of course unclear how long Eastern Europeans will cling to their cold war vision of the United States as the gravitational center of the West. As long as they do, the scales of loyalty are likely to tip toward the Atlantic alliance so fundamental to British governments of the last 50 years. Yet most believe that those differences will eventually melt away, much as they have as Western Europe knits itself ever closer together. "Geography will triumph over history," declared Tony Judt, a Europe specialist at New York University. "It will eventually matter more to the Eastern Europeans to be in the favor of Brussels, because day to day they will need Brussels." Dennis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe, observed: "The great fallacy is that as Europe gets bigger, somehow it gets more disintegrated. The evidence is that every new previous enlargement has been followed by the need for more sharing of sovereignty and someone to set the rules in Brussels."

Over time, too, the union's voluminous codification of laws and standards, some 80,000 pages long, may wear down Eastern Europe's rough edges, fostering political stability and reducing ingrained corruption. An unknown factor here is the United States foreign policy. Officially and historically, Washington is on record as favoring a strong and united Europe, but what if the Continent becomes a monolithic competitor in economics and foreign policy? Already there are divisions over the delicate question of whether the union should admit Turkey, a country of 70 million. Washington is pressing for admission on the ground that Turkey is a NATO member and a secular democracy that needs to find stability in the arms of Europe. Europeans are deeply split over the question. Some say it would be impossible to conceive of a governing structure that could accommodate, say, Turkey and Germany, countries with comparable size of population but hugely different levels of development. Others say opening the door to millions of Islamic immigrants — in addition to the millions of Muslims that Europe is already struggling to absorb — is asking for trouble because it will set off religious and ethnic feuding and provide fodder for far-right movements.

For some the question boils down to an often fruitless attempt to fix Europe's natural boundaries. For others it becomes an effort to define what it means to be a European. Quickly, such conversations turn to intangibles, to talk of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and definitions offered centuries earlier by Dante and Voltaire. Some talk of a feeling of belonging that overcomes them in a Central European coffeehouse or of alienation when they visit the United States. "It's paradoxical," Mr. Pehe said. "Here I'm a Czech. But when I go to the U.S., I'm looked at as a European, and then I feel I'm a European. It's one of those concepts that you see better from the outside."

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