The European Union Faces East

By Peck, Bryan T. | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview

The European Union Faces East


Peck, Bryan T., Phi Delta Kappan


In addition to the problems of monetary union and the adoption of the "Euro" as the unit of common currency, the countries of the European Union (EU) currently face the twin problems of rising unemployment and worries about economic recovery. There are now 18 million unemployed people in the EU, and among the many related economic issues are concerns about budget cuts that could affect the actions being developed under such programs as Socrates, Leonardo, and Youth for Europe. Readers may recall that these programs are the major vehicles for educational action by the EU between 1995 and the end of this century. Applications for financial support are now being considered for a second batch of proposals scheduled to begin at the end of 1996. As in 1995, there will be much competition, and many proposals will be unsuccessful.

It is obvious that the building of a united Europe depends as much on matters of education, youth exchange, and opportunities for "thinking European" as it does on the adoption of the "Euro." In spite of the "graying of Europe," there were 73 million people under the age of 18 in the countries belonging to the European Community at the beginning of this decade - a figure representing more than one-fifth of the total population. With the unification of Germany, the number of people under 18 rose to 77 million and, with the addition of Austria, Finland, and Sweden as members of the EU, this number has risen still higher.

Given the current financial and educational preoccupations of the member states, it would be easy to become "Eurocentric" and preoccupied solely with strengthening and consolidating the EU. While this is clearly important, the many internal challenges currently facing the EU must not be allowed to overshadow the continuing challenge of expansion and the development of ever closer links with the countries of Eastern Europe and beyond.

Public opinion in Europe would seem to support such developments. The public opinion survey Eurobarometer reported in autumn 1995 that the majority of citizens of the EU (56%) thought that, within the next 15 years, an expansion to include other European countries "such as Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, or Slovakia" will have become a reality. Those questioned in the Scandinavian countries were noticeably positive. In contrast, those who thought that such enlargement would not be a reality by the year 2010 included many in France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium. In fact, there are currently nine countries in Central and Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Rumania, and Slovakia) that have already signed agreements with the EU that are designed to lead to membership.

The first significant steps in the process of expansion were taken at an EU summit meeting held in Copenhagen in 1993. At this meeting it was agreed that countries in Central and Eastern Europe could become members when they had fulfilled the necessary conditions (outlined below). At the Madrid summit last December, the eastward expansion of the EU was again a major theme.

This year promises to be important both for consolidation and for continuing to develop further links and greater cooperation. At the Turin summit in March 1996, a top priority for discussion was the proposed expansion that could eventually involve the Czech Republic, Poland, Rumania, and at least a dozen more states. The process will build on several "Association Agreements" and on the many programs that have already been developed as Joint European Projects (JEPs), coordinated by the European Training Foundation in Turin.

The Association Agreements (or "Europe Agreements") went into force with Poland and Hungary on 1 February 1995. These agreements cover cooperation in aspects of commercial and economic life, as well in cultural matters. The objective for "associated" countries is to become members of the EU, on the condition that there will be continued respect for human rights, a market economy, a pluralist democracy, and the rule of law. …

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