Fifth anniversary fails to assuage concerns

4 mai 2009

Sylvie Goulard, interrogée par le Financial Times sur le 5ème anniversaire de l’arrivée des nouveaux Etats membres, souligne que l’arrivée de ces nouveaux pays a été envisagée sous un angle essentiellement économique, voire comptable, en négligeant un peu trop les aspects humains.

Fifth anniversary fails to assuage concerns

Financial Times

By Stefan Wagstyl
Published: May 4 2009

The European Union’s latest effort to get to grips with its eastern frontier comes days after it celebrated the fifth anniversary of its historic enlargement into the former communist bloc.

The eastward expansion healed cold war divisions and helped the ex-communist states to complete the economic journey from Marx to the market. With 10 countries, including Poland, joining the union in May 2004, and two more, Bulgaria and Romania, following in 2007, the union expanded to 27 states, with its eastern frontier moving from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
But the festivities have been muted. A conference in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, which currently holds the EU presidency, a five-kilometre run in Poland, and a Slovakia festival with the motto “five years of reaching for the stars”. But no collective grand-standing by EU leaders.

Five years on, an event that EU policymakers see as their greatest recent achievement generates mixed feelings among the public. Recognition of the historic significance is tinged by concern about costs, the global financial crisis and planned future enlargements.

A Eurobarometer opinion poll published this year found that 48 per cent of EU citizens thought enlargement had strengthened the union, but 36 per cent thought the opposite. Enlargement support was strongest in the east and weakest in the west, notably in France, Germany and Austria.

For enlargement’s promoters, headed by Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, there is no question of the policy’s benefits. He said recently: “Overall, EU enlargement has served as an anchor of stability and democracy and a driver of personal freedom and economic dynamism.”

The macro-economic record is strong. Income per head in the new member states rose between 1999 and 2008 from 40 per cent of the average of the old members to 52 per cent. The European Commission estimates that accession boosted growth in the new member states by 1.75 per cent a year in 2000-08 and added a cumulative total of 0.5 per cent to gross domestic product in the EU15.

Soaring mutual trade and investment have brought eastern and western Europe closer together. East European farmers, who feared the worst, have generally done well.

Meanwhile, growing stability in the east has benefited not only east but west Europeans. Suspect nuclear plants have been closed. The Schengen zone has eased travel controls. The enlarged union carries more international clout, particularly on economic issues.

Critics generally do not challenge the principle of enlargement but argue it should have been implemented with more care, particularly over the interests of ordinary west Europeans. Sylvie Goulard, president of the French branch of the European Movement, the federalist group, says: “In terms of GDP the impact is peanuts. But it’s not peanuts in human terms.”

The biggest worry is over competition for jobs, both from migrants and from workers in east European factories. A Commission-sponsored report published last week estimated 2.2m east Europeans moved west after 2004, increasing their total number in the EU15 to 3.8m. EU GDP was boosted 0.8 per cent with only “slight” effects on employment and wages in the west.

However, millions of west European workers are convinced the negative impact is bigger. Their frustrations, muted during economic expansion, have burst into the open in the crisis.

The crisis is becoming a test of post-enlargement EU solidarity with fears in eastern Europe that rich west European states could discriminate against them, for example through protectionist banking subsidies. Concerns about crime and corruption, particularly in Bulgaria and Romania, have also tainted the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the increase from 15 to 27 in the union’s membership has complicated decision-making. The union has yet to enact reforms that should have accompanied enlargement, amid delays in the ratification of the Lisbon reform treaty.

Enlargement has also made harder the forging of common external policies, especially for Russia, the EU’s largest neighbour. East European states with traditional concerns about Moscow are more inclined to see Russia as a potential danger than west European countries.

Given that past enlargements cannot be reversed, critics focus on future plans which encompass the western Balkans and Turkey. For the western Balkans, the main concern is that these fragile states should meet EU standards, notably over crime and corruption. For Turkey, the objections are more fundamental with leading EU politicians questioning Ankara’s right to membership.

For enlargement’s supporters, the lesson of past negotiations is to keep going. The eastward enlargement was delayed many times before it was finally completed.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009