Minority Report

E.U. enlargement underscores rifts between majority "haves" and minority "have-nots."

| Mon May 3, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

With the European Union's eastward expansion, a number of "have-not" nations formerly obscured by the Iron Curtain made a step toward realizing a dream of sharing in the bloc's wealth and political clout.

Yet the union's embrace of 10 new states will also underscore rifts between the majority "haves" and minority "have-nots" within every nation. Not only will small and large countries compete with each other for power; minority groups throughout the 25 nations will push for fair treatment and a share of the prosperity.

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There were already 13 million minorities in the E.U. before its latest the round of expansion. Now add to their number 4.5 million Roma, or Gypsies, and the large Russian-speaking population spread through the Baltic states. The Organization for European Minorities counts more than 300 sub-groups throughout the continent. They range from Hungarians living in Slovakia to Poles in the Czech Republic to Russians in Lithuania.

Meanwhile, as many as ten percent of people in newly acceding countries might take advantage of open borders and flock to the pre-May 1 states, according to one study, likely provoking resentment among native workers. But of the 15 elder E.U. members, all but Ireland are passing "interim" work restrictions against such migrants for at least the next seven years.

The Economist explains what's driving fears of unprecedented economic migration from eastern states:

They will not empty, but some will undoubtedly leave. The 15 older members of the EU already host up to 1m immigrants from the new countries. If permitted, 2m-3m more could eventually join them, arriving at the rate of 200,000-300,000 per year, according to some forecasts. But permission may not be forthcoming.

The plight of the Roma, who wandered from northern India more than a thousand years ago and now live largely in the Balkans, is the most vivid example of a population likely to remain shut out by the rest of Europe. Tom Hundley of the Chicago Tribune reports:

Although the Roma have been "Europeans" for about a millennium, having migrated from the east, they entered the 21st century as Europe's poorest, least understood and most despised minority. Once isolated and ignored as a local problem in Eastern Europe, they now become a worry for the whole continent.

According to a recent United Nations report, the Roma of Eastern and Central Europe endure living conditions "closer to those of sub-Saharan Africa than (of) Europe." One in 6 Roma are in constant hunger, 40 percent live in households with no running water and more than half don't have indoor toilets.
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But fears of invading Gypsy hordes are unfounded, according to most experts. Eastern Europe's Roma are quite literally too poor to go anywhere.

They also lack political representation, despite outnumbering some newer E.U. members such as Latvians and Slovenians.

Europeans invented the concept of cosmopolitanism. However, one in three people within E.U. member states told pollsters they were "quite" or "very" racist in 1997. Another third said they held slightly racist views, and the same number described themselves as free of bias. More than half lacked friends outside their own ethnic group.

Reporter Samuel Loewenberg writes in Slate:

For both EU members and prospective members, it is almost a prerequisite to hate your neighbor, or worse, your resident minority: The British hate the French, the Poles hate the Germans, the Hungarians hate the Romanians, the Baltic countries hate their Russians, and everybody hates the Gypsies. And anti-Muslim sentiment is nothing new to Western Europe, as any Muslim living in France, Britain, or Germany will tell you.

Sleepy Slovenia, an Alpine-Mediterannean land of picturesque swan-scapes, illustrates Europe's battles over identity and belonging. It purged from its citizenship rolls some 18,000 ethnic minorities who failed to register after the country won independence in 1991, such as fireman Anton Debevec:

Although he was born in Slovenia, he had lived in Serbia as a child, and so the Slovenian authorities considered him a Serb. Debevec was told he was no longer a legal resident of Slovenia. He lost his health insurance, his right to own property, and his pension. "I was suddenly without any rights at all," said Debevec. "I was a foreigner in my own country."

Debevec had been erased.

Ethnic European foreigners aren't the only ones struggling to find a sense of belonging in adopted homes, as Europeans grapple with waves of migration from Africa and the Middle East. Take Muslims, for example. The Atlantic Monthly translates the French Montaigne Institute's report:

Though France's African and Arab minorities now make up 10 to 12 percent of the populace, there are no minority politicians to speak of. (The few that exist sit chiefly on the weak regional councils--where, oddly enough, they often belong to the far-right National Front.)

Schoolchildren are still introduced in class to "our ancestors, the Gauls," and French textbooks gloss over Algeria's 130-year history as an integral part of France--and also the brutal war for Algerian independence. Successful "integration" is measured by progress toward "the suppression of particularities connected to ... national origin." Even second-generation French people of Algerian ancestry are still referred to as immigrants--d'origine etrangere.

Meanwhile, by the late 1990s nearly half of the country's foreign-born population under twenty-five was unemployed; many of these people live in the public-housing ghettos that ring major cities. But any discussion of minorities' problems is taboo, because under the country's strictly enforced republican principles of secularism and universalism, racial and religious minorities don't exist as public-policy categories--they're all just French people.

And conflict isn't all about the rich v. the poor. The 20-odd minority groups with "separatist tendencies," such as Spain's Basques or Belgium's Flemish population, tend to live in countries either already belonging to the E.U. or not set to join the bloc this year.

Lobbyists for minority rights are pushing for more specific language to protect them in the draft of the E.U. Constitution. Europe's head office on racism has recommended setting up a human rights bureau to monitor and combat discrimination and xenophobia.

Just one day before its latest growth spurt, the E.U. decided on a refugee policy to prevent people from hopping from one country to the next seeking asylum. At the same time, the law purports to ensure that deportees return to safe second countries instead of back to conflict zones.

Loewenberg, in Slate continues:

The EU project is by definition one of mutual tolerance. The polygamous marriage of sovereign states was formed after World War II with the express purpose of binding former rivals into a shared future that would force them to move beyond their seemingly unalterable nationalisms.

Europe's array of cultures evolved over centuries through both arbitrary and momentous forces--geography, royal marriages, wars, border shifts and the migrations and diasporas they triggered.

How the latest political shift might affect the region will test the European Union and determine whether its people subscribe to a shared common identity, belonging to more than just a trading power.