Growing Pains

Europe prepares to expand, with a mix of optimism and trepidation.


Come May Day, the European Union will expand to become the world’s largest democratic trading bloc, with 450 million people and economic clout to rival the United States. Winston Churchill’s 1946 talk about creating a “United States of Europe” seems closer than ever for E.U. optimists, but at the same time expansion could defeat the purpose of forging a functional democratic alliance.

The E.U. faces a host of unresolved issues as it blends East with West, gaining 20 percent more citizens when it absorbs eight former Soviet republics plus the islands Malta and Cyprus on May 1. The union. is embracing Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia–states that languished behind the Iron Curtain while post-World War II Western Europe recovered and rebuilt itself with help from the Marshall Plan.

As the German paper Welt am Sonntag put it, “Rapid expansive movements produce a sense of dizziness. They are incomprehensible.”

Some Europeans,
like this Polish man, welcome the power shift:

Western Europe was allowed to rebuild with US money, safe in the knowledge that Soviet aspirations had been satisfied by the betrayal of Poland (and other countries in Central Europe). It is about time these countries re-took their rightful place at the heart of Europe. Western Europe owes them a debt of honor and gratitude, and it is about time this was acknowledged.

But this skeptical Briton writes to the BBC:

The E.U. also needs a clear vision as to what it is trying to achieve. Is it a single European state, is it a free trade area or is it something else entirely? This lack of focus has been evident for years and until the E.U. and the rest of Europe clearly know we will all continue to stumble along, tripping over the next obstacle in our path while we bicker over where we are going.

He has a point. Europeans haven’t even decided on a constitution yet because of quibbling between small and large nations about voting rights. Most people at street level would be hard pressed to name the sweeping personal rights enshrined in the book-length document — or the names of their European parliamentary representatives, for that matter. British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision this week to open the draft up to public vote might further slow down or kill the text’s approval by the rest of the community. Brits have so far shunned the single European currency are wary about ceding any authority to mainland Europe and Brussels bureaucrats.

E.U. nations set and observe their own laws as well as those of the union, which largely regulates trade and employment. Some E.U. proposals are viewed as intrusive and over-ambitious, such as an attempt to make chemical makers to file reports on 30,000 substances used in everything from furniture to medicine. Bids to create E.U.-wide passports, even for pets, raise eyebrows and privacy concerns.

The E.U. gets little applause for having contributed to the creation of a peaceful, unified Europe out of the ruins of a war that ended less than 60 years ago, in part because the union’s lawmaker’s are notoriously plodding in their decision-making. Cobbling together common E.U. economic, labor, immigration, health, labor and environmental policies — which account for half of the laws followed by its current 15 member nations — will demand more deliberation and compromise than ever. Some Eurosceptics fear gridlock, with large Germany and France overshadowing their small neighbors, or tiny nations quashing resolutions with petty vetoes.

Polls show that many western Europeans are uneasy at the union’s creep eastward to embrace regions with lower standards of living. Borders will become more porous and trade will increase, but will that make all Europeans more prosperous and globally competitive? Expansion might slightly improve European economic growth, but not at that significant a rate, given the small size of the newcomers, according to the AFP. Also, the enormous social- welfare needs of the new entrants threaten to drag down the larger economies. The E.U. will spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade to help the poorer countries catch up. The current 15 members are reluctant, for example, to dole out E.U. retirement benefits to new members states’ citizens whose taxes before E.U. membership did not fund welfare programs. Yet the E.U. is expanding its budget by 25 percent to cover such efforts, as well as foreign aid and higher administrative costs.

The sluggish 2 percent GDP growth rate of the current 15 E.U. nations is half that of its newest 10 members. Businesses have been preparing to capitalize on the lower taxes and wages in the east by building factories there and moving operations from, say, the Belgian countryside to small towns in Poland. However, only 10 percent of Czechs told the Center for Public Opinion Research that they expected to benefit from E.U. citizenship.

Some disgruntled westerners are losing their jobs to the east. Acting European Employment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom told reporters last month, “There is a responsibility on all of us to make sure this does not turn ugly.”

All Europeans are experiencing the side effects of globalization and all face increased competition from Asia. Still, says the Economist (subscription):

Even for big companies, central Europe will retain some advantages over Bangalore or Beijing when viewed from the West: productivity is higher, tariff and border problems are disappearing, shipping costs are lower, and the business environment is more familiar.

Europe, with its multiple political parties, doesn’t suffer from the “red” and “blue” state polarity of the United States, but its conservatives and liberals often clash. Anti-immigration right-wingers have risen in popularity in part thanks to an average unemployment rate of 8 percent, to the embarrassment of the continent’s mainstream.

That makes it especially tricky to devise labor and migration rules, with Germany, Sweden and others trying to postpone issuing work permits for foreigners. Britain put a hold on all immigration applications from Romania and Bulgaria in March because it was flooded by requests. The poor from those states may find it easier to enter the west through the gateway of Romania’s neighbor Hungary. Yet an influx of young workers could even rejuvenate the rapidly graying population of the west, helping to keep social welfare programs and pensions afloat.

Europe also faces potential public health crises. HIV infection rates are growing faster in Eastern Europe and Central Asia than anywhere else — and could grow more acute as east-to-west migration rates increase.

The very notion of what it means to be European is in flux. Switzerland and Norway, viewed by many as part of “Old Europe,” show little interest in joining the E.U. while many less prosperous countries on the fringe are clamoring for acceptance. By 2007 Bulgaria, Romania and maybe even Croatia will squeeze into the club, while Turkey continues to knock loudly at the door. If the Muslim nation enters the union, its votes and its people could become the majority in Europe–a possibility that terrifies some but gives hope to others intent on building bridges with the Muslim world. Turkey has a long way to go before it can meet E.U. human rights standards and root out corruption, though. Ravaged Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia will still be left out by that time. Could they start the process for membership around 2015? Where will expansion end?

Attempts to unify Europe began with the Roman Empire, followed three centuries after its fall by Charlemagne’s empire, and after a millennium by Napoleon and then Hitler. The difference this time, according to Europhiles, is that common interests such as democracy and peace rather than military muscle or ethnic superiority are forging the union.

Europe has been ambitious in the past, but it has never been so big. Just getting the leaders and lobbyists of 25 diverse nations to communicate with each other is daunting enough. Twenty official languages with 380 translation combinations will make up the modern Tower of Babel.

Could Europe overcome the challenges and one day eclipse the dominance of the United States? Or, Washington and Brussels might one day amount to the Rome and Constantinople of the 21st century, as the Economist (archived) suggests–but don’t expect it to happen all at once on May 1.