An unenthusiastic reaction to enlargement by the West

Article published on April 14, 2003
community published
Article published on April 14, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

In the West enthusiasm for enlargement has had the wind taken out of its sails thanks to sectorial interests and governmental indecision, something to consider if there is a referendum.

In 1984 the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, spoke from his Parisian exile of a 'cry' that was rising up from central Europe. Soviet expansionism and the totalitarianism of the Communist regimes had artificially separated this region from European history and civilisations, of which it was an integral part. They had, in his own words, 'stolen' it. When these regimes imploded it suddenly appeared clear to the populations of these countries that the direction to take was towards a reunion with 'Europe' and with the international institutions that had given them prosperity and security. There were certainly negative aspects: having to cede the political independence they had just regained to a new far off centre of power, this time Brussels, or having to suffer a sort of 'administration' by the EC/EU institutions, who would always be ready to push the undisciplined pupils back into line. However, the price was worth paying and the majority of people, both on a governmental level and as reflected through public opinion, appear convinced by the choice made.

The Fortress Effect

But were the citizens who were fully-fledged 'Europeans' waiting to welcome their 'stolen brothers' with open arms? The signals are conflicting. To understand them we need to retrace the tripartition that the economist Baldwin proposed at the beginning of the 1990s to explain the attitudes of governments in the face of enlargement. According to him, there were 'high political' reasons in favour, namely the logical completion of the historical EC design, as well as stabilisation of the Eastern region of the continent through the spread of democracy and economic freedom. However, there were so-called 'low political' and economical reasons in opposition. These concerned, in practice, the opposition of well-structured interest groups who heed both Brussels and national capitals. Farmers, for example, saw the entry of poorer axis countries as a threat to the important revenues that they receive from Brussels; trade unions feared the low cost labour. A detailed survey by Eurobarometer in the spring of 2002 revealed a certain distancing by the citizens of the 15 member states from the enlargement process, as if it did not really concern them. Certainly, the motivations that we have termed 'high politics' are widely shared. Nevertheless, despite the average current Union citizen claiming that the quality of his life will not change with the entry of the candidate countries, a certain 'fortress effect' can be noted. In only four countries did more than 10% of those interviewed believe that enlargement would bring new opportunities for work, travel and power (i.e. making Europe's voice louder on the international scene).

The Irish example

People who see the process negatively seem clearly sensitive to the motivations we have called 'economical'. Their main fear is the loss of employment opportunity and a general increase in unemployment. In general, only 40% believe that the benefits outweigh the sacrifices. And, last but not least, only 43% believe that enlargement will increase Europe's global influence. The vast majority of these citizens claim to have been informed about this process through television. And what have they seen in the last few months or the last year? In Italy they have seen the Finance Minister explaining that enlargement will take funds away from Southern Italy. In Germany and Austria they have seen the political class almost united in its battle to limit newcomers right to stay. In France they have heard a former President of the Republic warning against the destructive danger represented by the possible entry of Turkey (believed by 39% of those questioned to be the next accession country) and the current President abusing Poland for its ingratitude: in exchange for the funds that the French farmers were ready to give them, Virsavia has accepted American aeroplanes instead of French ones! And that is not all: he has weakened the common position that Europe (that is to say the Franco-German partnership) had found on Iraq in order to support, with the other candidates, the Anglo-American position. It would not be surprising if new data showed a drop in support for enlargement. After all, it befalls to the governmental elites to explain their political choices to the citizens. If they do not do so the signing, that they will in any case take part in on April 16th, risks unwillingly following a frosty reception from public opinion, as has been the case in Ireland.