A year ago Europe celebrated the EU's expansion from 10 to 15 members. Now frustration and lethargy seem to have set in. What happened?
The passion seems to have faded since last year
In the EU's capital, Brussels, the bloc's expansion by 10 countries in May 2004 made everything a bit bigger, more colorful and more complex. Despite the hard to control language diversity at the growing conference tables and the ever longer lists of speakers, the EU of 25 seems to work -- at least the everyday bureaucracy does. But it's noticeable that many of the new member states mistake their EU commissioners for ambassadors representing their national interests. The multinational leadership body's has suffered from a loss of collegiality and ability to makes decisions.
On the other hand, the new members also provide for greater momentum. They view many things as being too slow in the EU's sedate bureaucracy, particularly the recruitment of EU personnel from the eastern members. Germany and France are considered the major obstructionists, which, for example, both aim to water down the EU services directive that the new members see as providing more employment opportunities for their people.
The real litmus test will come with the start of negotiations about funds for the period between 2007 and 2013. The largest net contributors, in Western Europe, want to impose a budgetary ceiling. The big net recipients in the south don't want to go without the benefits they've become accustomed to. The poor recipient states in the east demand more structural and developmental aid, and they are backed by the European Commission, which -- also in light of the accession of more members still to come -- wants to supplement the budget by a third. An end to the impasse is supposed to be achieved by late June.
The balance sheet for the new member states is mixed: their economies are growing more strongly than in the old member states, but it will take years or even decades for the difference in living standards to be leveled off. As Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany formulated it, "All expectations were fulfilled -- because they were so modest."
Europe the scapegoat
It's very worrying that Europe is now being made the scapegoat in Germany and France. Of course wage-dumping by employing inexpensive workers from the new EU countries does exist in places, but one cannot honestly claim there's a ubiquitous flood of cheap laborers. Germany's high unemployment was not caused by the eastwards expansion of the EU; structural problems are responsible. German business itself says it has profited from increased exports to the new EU countries.
Too much significance is being attributed to the shift of production facilities to the Europe's east. Besides, salaries and prices didn't only start their continual increase in Poland, Lithuania and elsewhere after EU expansion. In a few years, these places will no longer be so-called "cheap-wage countries."
Voting documents for the upcoming referendum in France
In France, approval of the EU constitution hangs in the balance. A French rejection of the document meant to guarantee the growing union's ability to function would be a bitter setback. Approval is anything but certain in the Netherlands, Poland or Britain as well.
Altogether there's a hard to explain sense of frustration with the EU and weariness when it comes to the union's expansion. Romania and Bulgaria are being half-heartedly incorporated. Further additions, such as Croatia or Turkey, are faced with ever higher hurdles. If the constitution actually fails to be adopted and a core Europe develops Turkey's invitation to join will have to be carefully re-examined.
Union was the only choice
Time will tell if the union has overstretched and can't deal with the ideological and economic consequences. One year after the "big bang" expansion added 75 million EU citizens, the task is to explain to people why member states 26 to 31 should get on board too. It's time for an honest debate about the EU's borders and the speed of expansion.
Incidentally, not expanding the community of European democracies and freezing it in the 1990s position, with 12 or 15 members, was an inconceivable option. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the opposing blocs, it was a duty to strive for and achieve Europe's peaceful unity. The EU's expansion a year ago was the right thing to do, and it was necessary. Europe's condition is better today than the atmosphere in Germany suggests.