European Union Shows Strain at the Seams; Growth of Bloc Leads to Conflict of Ambitions
Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
NICOSIA, Cyprus - Confusion and disappointment are rising across the European Union amid the Continent's lack of a common foreign policy and a growing clash of national ambitions.
The planned admission of Bulgaria and Romania in January to the present 25-member union apparently has stretched the EU's ability to integrate. In addition to the chasm between rich and poor members and unfettered emigration from post-communist Eastern Europe, there is a significant challenge to Turkey's pending membership application.
"We now have to say who is a European and who is not," said Nicolas Sarkozy, the leading French presidential hopeful. "Leaving this question unanswered is no longer possible."
"We need to draft a new text to put things in order," added Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, considered by many to be a "euroskeptic" despite the millions of dollars his county has received from the European Union.
The emergence of potentially destabilizing problems has shaken the EU leadership, which so far lacks answers. Incongruously, the political class in the "old" member countries is frequently out of sync with the feelings of their electorates.
A typical example is Turkey's EU membership application, generally supported by most governments but, according to opinion polls, opposed by its electorate. Such a situation affects particularly the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus, an EU member since 2004.
This is a time of a "euro awareness" on the divided island before Cyprus converts its currency to the euro, a decision many residents fear will increase the cost of living. The equivalent of Cyprus pounds in euros has already appeared on telephone and supermarket bills.
Although Cyprus is 500 miles from the European continent, compared to 150 miles from Syria and 60 miles from Turkey, it is now officially a part of Europe. It counts on Europe for help with its main problem: the split between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities, and the presence of the Turkish army in the north of the island.
This "Cyprus problem" is compounding the European Union's difficulties, with the bloc likely to freeze its accession negotiations with Turkey because it refuses to recognize the Greek Cypriot government and bars Greek Cypriot ships and aircraft from Turkish harbors and airports.
Some "eurocrats" in Brussels, the EU capital, now feel that admitting a divided country such as Cyprus was a serious mistake. The "Cyprus problem" is the last thing Europe needs, they say.
Turkey's opposition to Cyprus and the slow and inadequate pace of Turkish reforms prompted Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, to warn of a possible "traumatic stop" in current accession talks.
"Things are going badly," Mr. Barroso said. "The reforms in Turkey are proceeding very slowly and today I don't see the progress I had hoped for."
Turkey's candidacy is only one of the divisive problems faced by the European Union, where eight of the latest 10 members are still recovering from years of communist mismanagement and political oppression. At the same time, the European Union's largest former communist countries are plagued by political difficulties blamed variously on "transition fatigue" and lack of concrete economic guidelines, or on a revival of "obstructive nationalism."
Bowing to opponents of further expansion, Mr. Barroso has announced that the accession of two Balkan countries Bulgaria and Romania "will be the last stage of enlargement. .. We are not in a position to integrate Europe without further institutional reform. There are limits to our absorption capacity."
He did not say how this would affect Turkey's long-standing membership application.
'Inner blocs' emerge
Meanwhile, the emergence of "inner blocs" within the EU has created concern in both its eastern and western parts, confirming the bloc's divisions, which some of its founders now consider to be unwieldy.
The periodic summit meetings between France and Germany, and particularly their efforts to forge a special relationship with Russia, are regarded in Britain as undermining the Continent's hoped for common foreign policy. East of the former Iron Curtain, Poland and the Czech Republic see the specter of an "unholy alliance," possibly at their expense.
By this autumn it was generally felt in Europe that Russian President Vladimir Putin was playing Europe off against the United States, using Germany as a "strategic partner." German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to be receptive, despite her electoral campaign promise that Germany would not deal "over Poland's head."
Officialdom in Brussels and in several Western governments had feared a strong and united stand from the east against the European Union's comfortable relationship with Moscow. Little has happened as the eight former communist countries seem incapable of consensus and found it easier to concentrate on internal problems and regional quarrels.
Even the so-called "Vishegrad group" consisting of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, has turned out to be somnolent despite a promising start.
Focus on local woes
Remarked Peter Balazsan, an analyst at the Central European University in Hungary: "The governments have no capacity to deal with foreign policy issues. They are obsessed with their domestic problems." And these domestic problems are becoming less and less comfortable to deal with after the achievement of such great goals as membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union.
Political disarray has set in, particularly affecting the most populous eastern members.
In Slovakia, ruled by a coalition that includes ultranationalists, pressure is growing to limit the rights of the Hungarian minority of about 600,000. Hungary was recently shaken by riots after the disclosure of lies on the economic situation by Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, during which police were accused of unprecedented brutality.
The Czech Republic has been struggling for several months without an effective government, although the country's democratic basis does not appear to have been damaged. Still, according to one assessment from Prague: "The romance appears to be over. Now politics is more professional, and that means corruption and the dirty side of politics too."
In Poland, with 39 million inhabitants the most populous of the new members, problems have increased since the creation of a ruling coalition that includes the extreme nationalist Self-Defense League, led by Andrzej Lepper, a former communist.
Poles may alienate
Some analysts feel that with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of President Lech Kaczynski, as prime minister, and with Mr. Lepper's strong nationalism, Poland is likely to alienate its European partners.
"Poland will become a more extreme, a more anti-European and a more xenophobic country," said Bronislaw Komorowski of the opposition Civic Platform party.
Indeed, observers note signs such as the resignation from the Solidarity union of Lech Walesa, its founder and former champion, because of its support for the regime, and the refusal of the Israeli government to cooperate with Poland's Education Ministry.
Disregarding its tarnished international reputation, the Kaczynski government is pursuing a sweeping purge of former communist officials, requiring special certificates from thousands of Poles, including diplomats, judges, journalists and police officers, stipulating that they did not collaborate with the communist regime. The extent of any such collaboration is judged by special commissions.
Regarding Poland's economy, the picture is mixed. Although some Western analysts feel that Poland's transition to free enterprise was carried out with a minimum of friction, the Poles themselves tend to be critical.
Poland's unemployment stands at 18 percent of the work force, the highest in the European Union and the main factor responsible for the departure over the past two years of 1.12 million people 3 percent of the population mainly from the ranks of skilled workers.
Most of them ended up in Britain, where the presence of an estimated 600,000 Poles, while apparently helping the economy, has put added strain on housing, education and other social services. In addition to the Poles, recent immigrants include Czechs, Slovaks and citizens of the Baltic states.
Sociologists worry about the future links of the emigrants with their home countries and the future of their children.
For the time being, such considerations have been dwarfed by the economic transition from communist orthodoxy, prompting the Warsaw weekly Polityka to headline: "The end of capitalism." The weekly pointed out that although there are 3.5 million private firms (not counting farms) registered in Poland, half of them have not shown any activity, and 60 percent employ only one person.
Concluding that the average Pole prefers a government job with guaranteed pay rather than the risks of free enterprise, the weekly declared: "The steam has gone out of our capitalist revolution."
Britain limits immigrants
Faced with the approaching EU membership of Bulgaria and Romania, Britain has reacted by imposing quotas on immigrants from the two countries, causing outcries in Sofia and Bucharest. Initially, only three EU countries Britain, Ireland and Sweden opened their doors to unrestricted immigration, while other members favored skilled foreign workers with short contracts.
Last week in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, the interior ministers of the six most populous EU countries pledged to cooperate against various forms of crime, including terrorism, human trafficking and illegal migration. The decision by the six, representing 75 percent of the EU population, was seen as setting a rare common agenda for the bloc.
Lech Kaczynski [NO CREDIT]; Nicolas Sarkozy [NO CREDIT]
Turkish troops marked the 32nd anniversary of Turkey's invasion of Cyprus in a ceremony in Nicosia on July 20. There is significant opposition from the European Union to Turkey's bid to join the bloc. [Photo by Agence France-Presse/Getty Images]
Cypriot commandos marched during a parade in Nicosia, Cyprus, Oct. 1 to mark the island's independence day. The "Cyprus problem" may lead the European Union to freeze its accession negotiations with Turkey because it refuses to recognize the Greek Cypriot government. [Photo by Agence France-Presse/Getty Images]…
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Publication information: Article title: European Union Shows Strain at the Seams; Growth of Bloc Leads to Conflict of Ambitions. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Washington Times (Washington, DC). Publication date: November 5, 2006. Page number: A08. © 2009 The Washington Times LLC. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.