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Eastern Europe´s EU Fatigue

When communism in Eastern Europe collapsed, the region’s new democratic leaders agreed that joining the European Union – fast – must be their priority. “Back to Europe!” became the slogan, one enthusiastically backed by a majority of their populations. Yet eight months before that dream formally comes true, doubts in Eastern Europe about the benefits of EU membership are mounting. What has gone wrong?

For the new democracies in Europe’s east, EU membership has five basic dimensions: historical symbolic, security, economic and political stability, and a guarantee of the rule of law. Each dimension dominated at different times over the last thirteen years; attached to each are different expectations on both sides of Europe.

That historical symbolism has always been more strongly felt in the East than in Western Europe. While Eastern Europe’s peoples perceived membership as confirmation of their historical affiliation with the West and as another step away from Soviet rule, the EU seemed in no hurry to meet those expectations.

Instead, the EU emphasized the technical criteria of membership. West Europeans did not seem concerned that early enlargement eastward might speed the consolidation of the region’s democratic revolutions. Reduced to a highly technical and bureaucratic process, enlargement became almost totally devoid of any moral and political ethos.

The security dimension of EU membership diminished in importance when the US opted for rapid NATO enlargement. The fact that the Americans were quicker on their feet than the EU also helped to solidify a sense of loyalty that many people in the new democracies feel toward the US.

Here, indeed, the EU missed a big opportunity to tie enlargement with a daring internal reform that would transform it into a superpower. Devoid of these two powerful symbolic dimensions, enlargement was turned into a dull exercise, in which the ultimate benefits of introducing EU legal standards became blurred in the minds of ordinary people by the complex process of adopting the acquis communaitaire that made the EU appear a bureaucratic monster.

In the end, Eastern Europe’s pro-EU elites were left with only one means of stirring enthusiasm for EU membership: general pronouncements about how the EU delivered peace and stability to a notoriously war-prone continent as well as the promises of economic benefits. Going “back to Europe” was gone; East Europeans were brought back to Europe by the US.

Now, unfortunately, even the economic benefits of EU membership seem unclear. Throughout the accession process, the EU made it clear that it could not and would not offer the same level of economic solidarity it offered previous newcomers to the Union.

The new members could, of course, benefit from investment pouring in from current EU countries. After all, for many West European companies the existence of a common economic and, eventually, a common monetary area will make it easy to relocate their operations into those parts of united Europe where the costs are lower but the legal standards the same. However, the possible benefits of West European economic expansion to the East may be curtailed by the continuing economic recession in several major Western European countries. A significant change in Europe’s economic fortunes cannot be expected unless deep structural changes are introduced. But only tentative reforms have appeared so far.

Slower growth in the new member states could also delay the planned introduction of Euro in those countries, which, in turn, could deter many companies from investing in the region. There seem to be a Catch 22 at work here: introducing the common currency may prompt foreign investment, but this will depend on the ability of the new members to lower their public finance deficits which, in turn, depends on economic performance, which depends on foreign investment.

With the economic benefits of EU membership now seeming much less than expected, the intensity of pro-EU sentiments in the candidate countries has significantly declined. Although in virtually all candidate countries in which referendums on membership have taken place overwhelming majorities voted in favor of membership, many people did not turn out to vote. The best word to describe the referendums that have taken place so far is apathy.

Eastern Europe’s post-revolutionary enthusiasm for Europe has evaporated. To make matters even more complicated, East European countries will join the EU at a time when it has initiated a major internal reform embodied by a new European Constitution. Given their experiences with the drawn-out enlargement process, most candidate countries are leery about the motives of some large EU countries. If those countries have been egoistic in the past fourteen years, why should candidates believe they would not misuse some new decision-making mechanisms to the detriment of small countries — hence the opposition of some candidate countries against creating the post of a European president.

The fears of some candidate countries have also be strengthened by the schizophrenic behavior, particularly French President Jacques Chirac’s chastising candidate countries for voicing support for the US. Eight months before joining the EU, the region finds itself at a different crossroads than what EU membership was hoped to represent only a few years ago. On 1 May 2004 when the dream of expansion is fulfilled, there will likely be little jubilation on either side of Europe. Instead apprehension and desultory hopes that it will all work out in the end will dominate. Given Europe’s experience with revolution, particularly Eastern Europe’s experience, perhaps that apathy should be welcomed?

Project Syndicate, August 2003