On May 1, the EU will accept 10 new members. The historic enlargement of the bloc is being hailed as a chance to spread political stability and economic prosperity, but it will also bring a host of challenges.
Europe: the world's biggest building site
Several years in the making, the expansion of the European Union next month will mark the beginning of a new era for a continent long separated by conflict and ideology. With the Cold War now consigned to memory, a large swathe of formerly Communist Eastern Europe -- as well as the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus -- will join the prosperous West.
Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all waited 15 years after emerging from the shadow of the Soviet Union to finally be part of Europe's most exclusive club. That means for the first time in modern history, more than 450 million Europeans will be united in a single political entity stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic States' eastern border with Russia.
"First and foremost this is a peace project," Günter Verheugen, the EU commissioner in charge of enlargement, told German public broadcaster ARD last week. "It creates peace, stability and security in the European region."
Many EU citizens -- both old and new -- likely share those noble sentiments. But unfortunately for public officials in Brussels and national capitals across the Continent, as May 1 approaches, ever more Europeans are also beginning to question what other effects eastward expansion of the bloc will have.
Large and unmanageable?
Some are worried a Union of 25 will become unwieldy, unmanageable and less transparent than it is now. Others, especially in countries bordering the new member states like Germany and Austria, fear they will lose their jobs as businesses move east in search of cheap labor and poorer easterners come west looking work. Though many concerns may be overblown, experts do agree that there are a number of daunting challenges awaiting the enlarged EU.
"It's certainly going to exacerbate how the EU tries to manage things," Heather Grabbe, the deputy director at the Centre for European Reform in London, told DW-WORLD. Having followed EU expansion for the better part of a decade, Grabbe believes adding members to the table at Brussels will force members to push for further reform of EU decision-making. "There won't be institutional gridlock -- in the end it will muddle through."
She said she expected a number of issues to arise after the new members had settled in, which could then be tackled by the EU. "Hopefully any shortcomings should provoke more reform," Grabbe said.
Economically, the 10 new members have been integrating with Western Europe for over a decade. But some aspects of integration will be delayed -- because countries on both sides of the former East-West divide want it that way. Most glaring will be the lack of new EU citizens' ability to work legally in the old EU countries. All of the western nations, with the exception of Britain and Ireland, will impose some sort of restrictions on their labor markets.
Fearing Germany will be overrun by unemployed Poles, the government in Berlin is likely to refuse them working privileges for a full seven years as allowed by EU treaties. This has naturally incensed Poland, which calls German concerns irrational.
"There is no reason to expect there will be a mass inflow of Poles to the German labor market. But the German domestic situation does not facilitate a rational approach to this issue," outgoing Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller said last month.
Poland, however, has its own reservations. Despite desperately needing foreign investment from western EU countries, Warsaw has negotiated a 12-year ban on foreigners buying agricultural land. Poland fought hard for the restrictions because many Poles are worried Germans may be inclined to try and buy back land and real estate that they or their families once owned prior to be expelled from areas belonging to Germany before World War II.
Poland also showed that the new members won't shy away from blocking EU decision-making if it is in their interest when it last year led the campaign against the draft constitution for the bloc due to a dispute over voting rights. Warsaw has since dropped its hardliner stance on the matter, but only because its main ally, the conservative-led government of Spain, was voted out of office in March.
Row over budget issues
The constitution, along with the future funding of the EU, will be two of the top issues in Brussels immediately following the accession of the 10 new countries. Fearing the poor east could increase the demand for aid in coming years, net contributor nations have already been arguing for months that the EU budget should be capped at one percent of each country's gross national product.
The European Commission has dismissed such calls, arguing Brussels would be expected to achieve more with less. And those countries that have been the biggest beneficiaries of EU structural funds in past, in particular Spain, Greece and Portugal, are unhappy aid will be diverted to the less fortunate new member states. But some experts counter the EU doesn't need more money, Brussels just needs change its spending habits.
Andreas Mauer from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin singled out the often criticized the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which subsidizes Europe's farmers with nearly half of the bloc's total €100-billion budget.
"We have to ask ourselves what do we want to pay for? That agriculture takes up so much is longer responsible. Those funds could be put into research and development or other investments that could help all of Europe," Mauer told DW-World.
Such disputes over money may resolve themselves if expansion brings real economic benefits to members both old and new as is expected. According to some estimates, the new members' gross domestic product could increase by 1.5 percent and some 300,000 new jobs will be created in the old countries.
And as May 1 approaches, quibbling over the budget and other typical EU quarrels are sure to fade into the background as the leaders of the expanded Union bask in the glow of the historic moment. But it's only after the official festivities are over and the politicians have left the stage that the European Union's 75 million new citizens will begin to make their presence truly felt.