Cracks Show Even as European Union Tries to Grow

Article excerpt

Byline: Jason Walsh and Nikolia Apostolou, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

DUBLIN -- Riots in Athens. Border controls in Denmark. Growing nationalism in the Netherlands and France.

The European Union is looking anything but united these days. As troubles persist and grow, EU leaders are pushing for further enlargement, with countries such as Croatia and Iceland eagerly lining up to join.

Europe wants to show that it can repeat the success stories of the enlargements in 2004 and 2007, said Almut Moeller, who specializes in EU integration issues at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

[EU leaders] want to show they can use the union's transformative power to bring peace and stability. And even though it isn't always working beautifully, membership is quite an interesting prospect for Croatia and others because they know that being part of a big economic bloc brings tremendous benefits.

Still, as Europe's economic crisis deepens, clashes last month between police and protesters demonstrating against Greek austerity measures hint at a deeper crisis - one of political legitimacy. Greece has instituted deep cuts in public services in exchange for billions of dollars in bailout funds from EU member states, sparking protests and criticism of Greek fiscal responsibility.

What's more, Denmark's plan announced this week to increase customs checks at its borders has drawn fierce opposition from Germany, which argues that the Danish initiative violates one of the EU's founding principles: the unencumbered movement of people and goods among the 27 member states.

All for one?

Anti-EU sentiment is on the rise across the Continent.

A poll conducted by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies found that more than 40 percent of European civil servants said joining the EU had produced a negative effect for their countries in the past 10 years.

In addition, European leaders and institutions increasingly are viewed as aloof and out of touch by those hit by austerity measures in Greece, as well as those paying for bailouts in countries such as Germany and France, analysts say.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticized by fellow EU members for hedging on financial bailout measures and castigating the Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese for the length of their vacations and their retirement age.

But Mrs. Merkel was playing to an electorate that is losing enthusiasm for the European project and now believes Germany is acting as Europe's wallet. Polls show that 60 percent of Germans oppose further financial help for Greece.

People don't make the connection between the fact that Germany is doing so well economically and being part of the eurozone, Mr. Moeller said. That is the failure of [the German] government, for not only failing to explain this but also going along with the public mood of bashing the Greeks for being lazy.

Greeks say their future is gloomy and uncertain. After two years in recession, the country's economy is weighed down by corruption, tax evasion, inefficient bureaucracy and rising unemployment. Greek officials already have increased taxes and cut the minimum wage.

Even though I'm generally an optimistic person, I can't see anything positive coming in the future, said Marios Theodwrou, a shop owner in Syntagma Square in Athens, the heart of protests last month against the Greek government.

Greeks also criticize the help they have received from fellow Europeans.

Europeans have given money to Greece, but they did it because they had their own agenda, said Elen Tsourounaki-Peck, 35, of Athens. The Greek crisis is a systemic crisis, but above all a European crisis. When the European leaders were summoned to deal with it, they were indecisive and appeared [to cater] to vested interests.

EU officials say the nations must stick together and ride out the political crises as well as the worst recession since the 1930s. …