European Union Shows Strain at the Seams; Growth of Bloc Leads to Conflict of Ambitions

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 5, 2006 | Go to article overview
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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.

'Euro awareness'

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 warned

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.

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