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The EU's Catch-22

COPENHAGEN: Worrying signs are mounting that the European Union’s enlargement process is losing steam. Bringing into the EU applicant countries from Central and Eastern Europe, as well from the Baltic region, however, remains the single most important item on the European agenda in our time. It would be a mistake of historic proportions to delay it. For stalling could pose a serious threat to European stability far out of proportion to enlargement’s costs.

Enlargement will undoubtedly pose many practical problems. But the magnitude of the economic costs should not be exaggerated: after all, the aggregate GNP of the 10 applicant countries from the former communist bloc is smaller than the GNP of Holland! Structural support to new members from current EU members, indeed, is expected to be less than 4% of Dutch GNP. Transfers of wealth on the scale of what took place between West and East Germany won’t happen. Indeed, enlargement’s total cost will be less than the annual increase in the EU Commission’s own resources which "normal" economic growth provides.

Costs, of course, are not the only difficulty. One additional problem concerns the establishment within applicant countries of administrative and democratic structures compatible to those that exist in today’s EU. But if present EU members erect conditions on membership that are too harsh for newcomers to meet, they run the risk of creating a "Catch-22" situation. In his novel of that title Joseph Heller described the situation faced by some fighter pilots in WWII: medics can ground anyone who is crazy, provided that the pilot requests to be grounded. Because fear in the face of danger is a normal human reaction, however, anyone who requests grounding cannot be crazy and so cannot be grounded. That’s "Catch-22".

The same might be said about joining the EU: if you can only become a member by living up to the standards of the Union, you will never become a member, since you need membership to entrench those standards.