Europe at the Crossroads (11/02)

When the results of the Irish referendum on the Nice treaty became official in September, a sigh of relief reverberated throughout the European Union (EU) and beyond, namely into the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Although it’s hard to say for sure what would have happened had it gone the other way, one thing is certain: it wouldn’t have been pretty. Vaclav Havel went so far as to warn that failure to ratify the Nice treaty would lead to a new Iron Curtain. Other CEE leaders simply preferred to grovel and beg to be let in.

It really would have been a slap in the face for CEE countries if the Irish had rejected the Nice treaty. Earlier, the final EU Country Reports on several candidate countries recommended that negotiations for accession to the Union be concluded with nine of the 12 applicants by the end of the year. Subsequently, those countries able to meet the timetable would be in a favorable position to become full members beginning January 1, 2004. Among the issues that still needed to be addressed by all candidates were a reduction in corruption and improvement in the social integration of minorities.

Although the luck of the Irish may have been with CEE politicians and Brussels "eurocrats" this time round, the process is far from over and Europe remains at the crossroads, albeit slightly more certain about which direction it would like to go. None of the remaining obstacles are likely to derail the process, but any one of them could delay expansion.

Infighting over Expansion

One potential obstacle comes from within the EU itself. Although all member states have officially ratified the treaty, some governments remain wary. For example, politicians from the Netherlands have expressed reservations about candidates such as Poland. There is still fear throughout Europe that poorer brethren from the east could swamp EU labor markets and welfare systems.

Applicant countries are also reconsidering EU enlargement. Although CEE countries have their sights set firmly on joining, many are beginning to wonder if the price is too high. Further delays carry a risk that the whole process could stall.

Just as some EU members are concerned about the economic costs of letting east join west, some from CEE worried about the economic costs of letting the west plunder the east. Poland is a prime example. The Polish prime minister went so far as to say that "foreigners would come to pick over the country’s economy like crows."

Especially worrisome to Poles are regulations concerning the Common Agriculture policy and the issue of subsidies. Based on the negotiations so far, CEE countries are being given a bad deal, and their status within the New Europe is likely to be second-class. For instance, after joining the EU, on average accession countries will receive only half as much in subsidies for infrastructure development as existing members.

Unfortunately, pundits and politicians uncritically support expansion, keen to point out how much in subsidies their respective countries would receive without putting the figures into context. Never mentioned is how much new members will ultimately have to pay.

In central and eastern Europe, the EU is viewed as a cash cow. But who will feed this hungry animal? For instance, Hungary’s Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy has remarked that accession would improve the quality of life for Hungarians and bring between 200-250 million forints in subsidies to the country. Yet this works out to a paltry 25 forints (about 10 euro cents) per person. He also failed to mention how much more tax the average Hungarian will have to pay.

Hungary may appear to be a staunch supporter of EU expansion, especially given the fact that it’s near the front of the line. But even here there are problems, and they have less to do with public welfare than some of the business privileges that will have to be given up. In particular, the current neo-liberal government is concerned that it will have to scrap its favorable tax regime for multinationals. Responsible for 40 percent of the country’s exports and 10 percent of employment, these companies might move further east to secure a better deal. Since wages in Hungary are no longer competitive from a globalist perspective – in other words, labor costs are no longer low enough – a noticeable shift eastward is already underway.

The ever-present side effects of political infighting also threaten to thwart the EU expansion timetable. In Hungary, these conflicts center around the constitutional changes required for membership and the date for a referendum. The government would like to hold the vote on March 15, 2003, a public holiday that commemorates the 1848 revolution. However, the opposition has two objections: the referendum shouldn’t be held on such an important holiday, and the details of the accession treaty won’t yet be finalized by that date.

The US Factor

One additional aspect could aversely affect expansion. Few consider it, and yet it may actually pose the biggest obstacle. It’s known as the "Angloization" of central and eastern Europe.

For most Europeans, the United Kingdom (UK) is an enigma. Many see the British as a thorn in the side of a united Europe and a lapdog of the US, always ready to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Quite a few would be pleased if the UK weren’t a part of the EU at all.

Angloization basically means that this same political framework could be imposed on the former communist countries. It took them a long time to get out from under the Soviet Union, and now they could be forced to do whatever the US asks.

The crisis with Iraq illustrates the extent to which many CEE countries have already become Angloized. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of these countries have been pushed around concerning US policy on Iraq. Indeed, most are acting out of political expediency. But realistically, they don’t have much of a choice; it’s the price they must pay to join the exclusive clubs of the west, such as NATO. Moreover, they simply aren’t strong enough to stand up to the US.

Consequently, the official response has been more or less writing the US a blank check. In Hungary, Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs gave the US and the UK a more favorable signal than most European allies. Unlike many other European foreign ministers, with the notable exception of Spain and Poland, he has suggested implicitly that unilateral action by the US and Britain, without prior UN sanction, would be acceptable.

Likewise Bulgaria, which is currently a member of the UN Security Council, has unconditionally supported US plans, whatever they may be. As the Bulgarian foreign minister declared, "the next time the US asks for or needs support Bulgaria would be an excellent ally." This is almost identical to Kovacs’ statement. "If military action becomes inevitable," he said, "Hungary, as an ally of the United States and a NATO member committed to the struggle against terrorism, will know where its place is."

Essentially, the US takes it for granted that countries like Hungary and Bulgaria will follow its line on Iraq. Nevertheless, the US Administration enjoys hearing support from seemingly "independent-minded allies." As the Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Budapest stated after a September NATO meeting in Warsaw, "The US is always pleased to receive the support of its allies, and is particularly encouraged that the briefing given in Warsaw to Defense Minister Juhasz was seen as stating a compelling case."

Exploiting Insecurity

The EU is deeply worried about Washington’s dominance in the region. Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner for External Affairs, argues that "the US should not establish itself as the world hegemon, setting and imposing rules but itself not being bound by them in pursuit of its own national interest." Unfortunately for CEE countries, the EU is just as domineering. In fact, the region appears to be caught in a tug-of-war between the two huge economic powers. Rather than allowing the region to develop economically on its own, it has been split and fragmented — politically, socially, culturally, and economically. In fact, destabilization has been actively fostered by both the US and EU.

Nowhere can this be more clearly observed than in regional re-militarization. The end of the cold war should have led to the de-militarization. In effect, the region was a buffer zone between east and west. Thus, the notion of security led all countries to seek NATO membership as a policy goal. Ironically, most CEE countries find it quite difficult to afford NATO membership. It’s one thing to dismantle Soviet-era weapons and quite another to buy a full new set, largely from US manufacturers. Yet this is what former communist states have been obliged to do, and the prestige of having a key to the executive toilets of the west has made it a top priority of almost all CEE countries.

Both the EU and the US have been quick to exploit this. CEE countries have been forced to take out new credits for armaments as a condition of joining NATO and the EU. But re-militarization has little to do with security; rather, it’s a regional arms bonanza for defense contractors. In many cases, the arms being sold are inferior, as a test of new surface to air missiles in Hungary revealed. During those tests, the missiles had an accuracy rate of less than 30 percent.

The exploitation of security issues, along with the real reasons behind regional re-militarization, have become apparent in some countries. Thus, both the Czech Republic and Poland have decided not to buy new fighter jets and instead pool their military resources. Others, like Hungary, who are firmly in the grip of the war industry, have opted to brown-nose, convincing the public of the need to spend more money on armaments that, in reality, aren’t needed. The argument for such expenditures is that, if they don’t re-arm, they won’t be protected by other NATO members during a conflict. Of course, this is a spurious claim, easily contradicted by the recent moves of Poland and the Czech Republic.

On all sides of the various divides there is increasing disquiet that politicians will fail to deliver on their promises. Yet, what really stands in the way of EU expansion is economics. As the staggering global economy has shown over the past few years, that factor is beyond the control of politicians, thanks in large measure to globalization. So, Europe remains at a crossroads, waiting anxiously to see whether the New Europe will be a success or not — and for whom.

John Horvath is a TF contributing writer covering Europe and corresponding author for the on-line zine Telepolis ( in Germany. He can be reached at