Feeling the effects

Article published on May 2, 2005
community published
Article published on May 2, 2005

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

Surprisingly few people in Western Europe are aware of the fact that ten more countries joined the EU and even fewer can name them. But what effect has enlargement had on these new member states whose accession has often been ignored or maligned?

May 1, 2004. As far as most people in Western Europe are concerned, this was a day like any other. Nearly one year later, if asked what special event took place on that particular date, hardly anyone will answer that the European Union was enlarged by ten countries. This lack of interest is caused by the perception that this change has not affected their personal lives. And it seems they may be right. Fears of an influx of immigrant workers and cheap corporate tax competition, which were fanned by the media, appear to have been unfounded. Thus, for those living in Western Europe, enlargement has not yet resulted in significant enrichment or deprivation in any political, cultural or economical way.

But for ten countries, joining the European Union meant a new era in the history of their existence. On May 1 2004, they traded a part of their sovereignty and national identity for economic and political inclusion. But the question is, how has enlargement affected the personal lives of the 75 million people living in those ten new member states?

Winds of change

According to Aleksandra Wachacz, a Polish student, “people [in the new member states] were afraid of an increase in prices, taxes, competition on the market and the collapse of agriculture. One year later, when walking on the street, I don’t see any radical difference between Poland before and after joining the EU - although prices, in particular of food, have risen somewhat.” So it seems that economic fears, which were shared by both new and old member states, have been largely assuaged. But has accession altered people’s mindset? András Péter, a Hungarian student, believes his country’s communist past still influences the way people think. “There is still a layer of society which cannot understand the importance and meaning of economic competition. They still look back with longing on the ‘good old communist times’ and many cannot comprehend the possibilities that accession has offered.” That the East European democratic culture is not yet fully grown was clearly demonstrated during the European parliamentary elections last year: turnout in Eastern Europe was under 25%. Still, Tereza Grunvaldova, a Czech journalist, is not pessimistic. “More and more, people are getting used to a new way of thinking. There are more opportunities to travel and work freely around Europe. All these factors have a positive effect on the concept of democracy in my country.”

While certain advantages, such as those listed by Tereza, are evident, Aleksandra points out that “not many people realised that benefiting from EU membership is a long-term process.” New member state citizens have not yet been granted the same rights as citizens in the pre-enlargement EU. Currently, they cannot seek work in all the member states unconditionally and farmers have not been granted full agricultural subsidies. But Tereza feels this is not unreasonable, “Right now, we are at the beginning of our membership. We must build up our position”. Also, she doesn’t feel that ‘Western European’ values were forced upon her. “It is not relevant to talk about the influence of Western values on our country, because we have the same values, don’t you think?”

Just economics?

So maybe the distinction between the new member states from the East and the old EU members is not as obvious as it seems. Big clashes in policy decisions during the last year were not particularly between the new EU-10 and the old EU-15. Poland supported the war in Iraq, against the wish of Germany and France to form a common standpoint, but so did the Netherlands and the UK. France strongly opposes reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, together with most Eastern European countries. Perhaps the Bolkestein directive, which aims to liberalise the services market within the EU, will force a real clash between East and West because West Europeans predominantly judge political change and institutional reform in economic terms. This is why the anxiety of the old member states regarding enlargement was expressed mostly through concern about issues such as labour migration. The fear of cheap labour from Eastern Europe creating instability in the labour markets of Western Europe has been picked up on by national political leaders and social movements, who use this anxiety for their domestic anti-European agendas.

This, as Aleksandra puts it, “makes it very difficult for people to understand that the objective of entering this alliance is to decrease the economic gap and overcome the difficulties in trade as well as increase cultural integration. But this process, as with any other transformation of the economy and national status, requires time and effort on both sides. There is no longer any place for boundless enthusiasm but realism and a realistic vision of the future”.