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For a Bigger, Better Union

NEW YORK: Ten years after the Berlin Wall’s fall, the European Union may at last be redeeming its promised invitations of membership for former communist states. Romano Prodi’s European Commission has conceived a far-sighted strategy of enlargement. Its features are greater openness and flexibility in negotiations, and clearer incentives for aspiring members to move closer to the political, economic, and institutional standards of the EU. If these work, the Union will become the world’s biggest example of successful, free market democracy.

Expanding the EU is no small task. Adopting the ways of potential newcomers to those of the EU takes time; negotiating terms of entry can be fiendishly complex; and the EU itself must reform its institutions for a future Union with perhaps 30 members.

Delve deep and the EU’s collective altruism towards the East has often masked the pursuit of national advantage. In a Union divided between net contributors and net beneficiaries, the economic fact of enlargement is that it will bring in much poorer countries. Either present givers provide a bigger pie, or present takers become satisfied with smaller slices. Because each accession treaty must be agreed unanimously, the potential for deadlock is obvious. Spaniards and Irishmen mutter that they will not let their people lose out to Poles or Hungarians or Lats.

So until now, at least on paper, the EU refused to open enlargement talks with candidate countries before they fulfilled a set of burdensome criteria. Although one could quibble whether the countries with which negotiations were opened in 1998 (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia) had really jumped these hurdles, the threshold was set high. Consequently, the prospect of entry into the Union provided little incentive to countries for which meeting the stiff criteria was not yet on the cards. But lack of progress in such countries threatens to make Europe a continent divided: half a fortress of the rich, the other a volatile cauldron of the poor. The shock of ethnic wars contributed to the idea of using enlargement as a carrot to entice stragglers toward reform.