While Americans were focused on the May 1 weekend on the Marines' pullback from Falluja in Iraq, Europeans celebrated an historic achievement on their continent: expansion of the European Union to twenty-five members. The enlarged EU will include nearly 450 million people and a gross domestic product larger than that of the United States.
Enlargement of this nascent European government, including ten new countries of which eight were part of the old Soviet empire, represents a major political achievement. It caps nearly fifty years of effort by European leaders to achieve economic and political integration of the continent after centuries of warfare that produced its decline as a major force in world politics.
The ten new countries are: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta, and Cyprus.
The increase in GDP that they bring to the EU is small, amounting to less than that of the Netherlands. But the economic potential for Europe is significant, for two reasons: these countries have far lower wage rates than those in the west, and there is less government regulation of their economies. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong among the new members who had to manage their own affairs for a decade after their Communist governments were ousted.
Richer EU countries worry about the large gap in living standards between current and new members where the standard is barely a fifth of that enjoyed in Western Europe. How to close the gap is a monumental challenge for Europe.
That task is particularly relevant for Germany because fourteen years ago, following reunification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl launched a massive subsidy program to bring the living standard of 17 million East Germans close to that of 60 million West Germans. The "Ossies," who lived under Communist rule for forty-five years, had a far lower standard than Germans who enjoyed a free-market system. Government leaders expected to close that gap in five years.
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported: "For the first time prominent German politicians are admitting that the subsidy-heavy reconstruction of the former East Germany has failed to create a self-sustaining economy." ["Reunification Policies Flopped, Germany Admits," April 29, A14] Many Germans are reluctant to finance a similar plan for new EU members.
If economic integration of the EU is a large challenge for European leaders, forging a closer political union is more daunting.
For several years a group of European experts has been drafting a new constitution for the EU that tries to resolve a similar controversy to one that vexed the American Founders as they drafted a new U.S. constitution in 1787: how to reconcile the demands of small states for equal representation with the large states in decision-making.
Until now the EU has maintained a unanimity rule that no major decision becomes binding until all members agree. That procedure will change, but how is a fundamental problem that faces EU leaders when they meet in June. To underline the difficulty in in reaching agreement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently announced that he will put this proposed basic law to a national referendum. There is no certainty that British voters will support it.
Some observers speculate that Europe may have to settle for a form of confederation instead of the centralized government structure envisioned by drafters of the new constitution.
Two additional hurdles stand in the way of progress toward a "United States of Europe."
The first involves use of a common currency, the euro which came into existence in 2002 and has revolutionized the way Europeans transact their business. The euro is used everywhere on the continent, but not in Britain, Denmark, and Sweden. Tony Blair favors its adoption, but many British are reluctant to go that far in relinquishing financial authority to a new Europe.
The second issue is military integration. This is a major factor in deciding whether a state relinquishes its sovereignty to the jurisdiction of another organization. Germany and France decided in the 1990s to proceed with plans to integrate units of their armed forces. The move was seen by American officials as a threat to the unity of NATO, the integrated defense organization that ensured the safety of Europe during the Cold War. France had withdrawn from its military organization in 1967 because President de Gaulle opposed having American troops in France and permitting French forces to serve under a NATO command headed by an American general
The war in Iraq has stimulated deep resentment in Europe against the United States, especially on the continent where many want to distance themselves from reliance on the United States for defense. They are skeptical of Washington's desire to use NATO forces outside Europe and have Europeans share the burden of peace-enforcing in Iraq, and perhaps in Palestine.
Although Britain, Spain, Italy, Poland, and several smaller NATO countries joined the United States in ousting Saddam Hussein's regime, France, Germany, and now Spain refuse to be involved in rebuilding Iraq so long as Washington remains in charge. This split over defense policy will continue to hamper movement toward European integration, and it will force Tony Blair into a major debate about Britain's future role in Europe and in NATO.
File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST