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European Union Enlargement:
An Olive Branch in the Eye of
Global Disorder?
By Kasia Kubin

As international opinion about the USA continues to stumble, and domestic politics become increasingly complex, the US sinks deeper into a mud pit of political turmoil - the growing disaster in Iraq, poverty and racism, conflicts over GM food, ecological degradation and Kyoto, prisoners in Guantanamo, all spotted with the mudslinging of the current presidential candidates. There are so many things wrong in our world, that it is all too easy to pick something to analyze, criticize and shed light upon…but for a change, I decided to consider a possible positive side of things: the enlargement of the European Union. Given its global significance and its as yet undecided outcomes, it was relatively easy to choose the topic for this month’s column.

The May 1st enlargement of the European Union has been long in coming. Since its beginnings in 1950, the EU has participated in 4 successive enlargements, and each one has pushed the EU to develop its internal structure and international perspective. This most recent enlargement, to Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, is unique in that it broadens “Europe” beyond the borders of what has traditionally been considered Europe by integrating many former communist block countries. After the fall of communism in the late 80’s and early 90’s, it was all but taken for granted, by Eastern European countries definitely and with more skepticism on the part of existing EU member states, that the further trajectory of former communist countries would end in the welcoming arms of the EU. After all, many of the anti-communist movements in Eastern Europe, which were largely responsible for the fall of communism, expressed their goals and dreams not so much as ending communism but as “returning to Europe.” The subsequent decade of debates, readjusting and restructuring of everything from bureaucracies and laws to economic and political institutions, have finally arrived at their hotly anticipated end: entrance into the EU.

In Poland’s main newspaper (comparable to the New York Times), the Gazeta Wyborcza, the May 1st front page includes a short message from the editorial staff that is a good example of the attitude of Eastern European governments and many, if not most, of their people:

Goodbye Poland - the land…that some spiteful spirit cursed and placed between Russia and Germany. Goodbye Poland – country of a European soul that history had for centuries committed to the margins of western civilization…where everything was fleeting, uncertain, unfinished. A nation where generations of children learned about lost battles, missed opportunities and betrayals of fellow countrymen.
Today, with our entrance into the European Union, we will not awake in a better country. We will rise in a new Poland, which has been granted the opportunity to develop its economy, education and culture.
This breakthrough is most important because for the first time in history, no one will stand in the way of our progress, but, on the contrary, they will help us, because Poland’s successes will also be theirs – the successes of all of united Europe.

In the poetic style that is characteristic of the Polish language, this message reflects the general attitude about this momentous event. The expansion of the EU is good news not because everyone is happy about it or because it is a completely genuine and noble event. Rather, it is good news because of the hope it represents for so many and because of the potential the new EU holds as a regional influence to help the poorer countries (especially in Eastern Europe) develop. Increasingly, however, the expansion of the EU also means a growing force that might ultimately balance the power that the USA has monopolized in international politics and economics over the last half century.

In this way, this enlargement marks a dramatic change in the world as we know it: it puts a punctuation mark of sorts on the end of the Cold War era by effectively erasing the “second world,” and it creates a massive block of economic and political power. Today, the Union is a relatively solid federation of states, with common legal standards (from food quality to a ban on the death penalty), social protection regarding women and minorities, governing institutions (in the form of the European Commission, Parliament and Council), and of course deepening economic ties. It is no secret that the EU was created to strengthen European countries by promoting stability, cooperation and inhibiting the possibility of war. Over time, though, the idea of uniting Europe has become a direct response to US domination, which peaked with the US’s unilateralism since the September 11th attack. With 25 member states, a population of 455 million, and the largest world trading bloc, many intellectuals, politicians and regular citizens look to the EU as a substantial check on the US.

This is not to say that EU is perfect or immune to the power struggles and abuses inherent in politics. It is impossible to completely disassociate it from the colonial history of its members or the domestic injustices that are common to all European countries. In fact, there is valid concern about new immigration restrictions; indecision among members about a common defense policy; and debates about the balance of power between sovereign nations and the EU centralized institutions is continuous and unrelenting. There is also considerable criticism, particularly from new and weaker member states, that the EU is not democratic enough, that its internal structure and decisions are dominated by the largest members: Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Among the member state populations, it is not uncommon to hear Eastern Europeans complain of a new colonialism by Western Europe and financial institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Western Europeans, on the other hand, fear an influx of citizens from poorer nations who will leach off their universal welfare systems and take precious employment opportunities.

But the hope remains that with the EU’s growing diversity, and every member states’ refusal to be sidelined or overlooked, there will be more accountability, more democracy and more responsibility in the EU than practiced in or exemplified by the US. Most importantly, if the EU achieves its anticipated status as a counter-weight to the US, there is hope that it will be able to represent an alternative voice to that of the US. For the international community of activists, NGO’s, businesses, and institutions, having two poles of power is vital in the pursuit of human rights, economic growth and international laws. In short, there is hope that, besides the potential positive sides of the EU itself, the very existence of something like the EU (and unlike the US), will enable progress in general. By its counter position to the world’s only super-power, the development of the EU is optimistic.

Thus, the enlargement of the European Union is cause to celebrate not just for Eastern European countries and for EU member states, but for the whole world: for families of soldiers in Iraq, for Spaniards, Russians, Colombians and Palestinians, as well as for human rights activists and local community associations. Whether local and global communities capitalize on the potential represented by the EU to create a more pluralistic and responsible world, though, depends on everyone, to paraphrase the editors of Gazeta Wyborcza. The EU is not just a passive phenomenon, but a tool, which can be used for good or for bad, to promote progress and justice or the stifle it.


 

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