COPENHAGEN – So far, Europe’s leaders seem to be mostly preoccupied with finding national answers to the global economic crisis. In particular, the leaders of “Old Europe” have been reluctant to open up their coffers for the countries of “New Europe.” If this attitude prevails, there is a grave risk that the European Project will become paralyzed. This will not only delay the restoration of economic growth, but will also have dire political consequences.
The European Union’s new members from eastern and central Europe have been hit much harder by the crisis than the old member states; they are also much less prepared to confront the situation psychologically and socially. Many were gravely disappointed when European leaders earlier this month rejected pleas to establish a special support program for them. Of course, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to point out that each country should be dealt with according to its situation. But she and her colleagues should have voiced clearer and more emphatic support for the new member states.
Emotions and expectations ran high when the new democracies from the former East Bloc joined the EU only five years ago. Until the crisis hit last year, the enlargement had proven to be a profitable business for Old Europe: high growth rates in most of New Europe injected energy into Old Europe’s sagging economies, much to the surprise of those who had predicted that enlargement would become an economic millstone around the neck of the established member states.
But then the financial system crumbled growth rates fell like a ton of bricks. The new democracies were shaken as public protests erupted in some of their capitals, and some governments have fallen. Expectations and confidence in democracy, the market economy, and the larger European project have suffered as well.