New Europe: Eastern Disillusion; Why Are EU Newcomers So Profoundly (and Increasingly) Euro-Skeptical? the Problem Is the Politics of High Expectations

By Underhill, William | Newsweek International, June 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

New Europe: Eastern Disillusion; Why Are EU Newcomers So Profoundly (and Increasingly) Euro-Skeptical? the Problem Is the Politics of High Expectations


Underhill, William, Newsweek International


Byline: William Underhill (With Kris Anderson in London)

By the numbers, Latvians should be smiling. Two years after joining the European Union, the tiny Baltic republic has emerged as the bloc's economic front runner. Growth in the first quarter hit a startling 13 percent. Trade is flourishing. Foreign investment has more than doubled in three years, and tens of thousands of young Latvians have found work in the bars and building sites of Britain and Ireland. The promised all-European future has arrived. "This country is no longer a gray area," says Martins Gavritis, spokesman for Latvia's central bank. "It's part of a big affluent market with clear rules."

So why the grumbles? The latest figures from the EU's own pollsters reveal the Latvians are the continent's leading Euro-skeptics. Support for membership is just 29 percent, below even those Brussels-baiting British and Austrians. Nor are they alone in their perversity. At the European summit in Brussels last week, leaders had one more paradox to add to their worry list: the strange disconnect between the benefits that the EU has delivered to Eastern Europe and its unpopularity with those new citizens. Says Giles Merritt, secretary-general of the Brussels-based lobby Friends of Europe: "Everything seems to be going according to plan, yet these countries seem to be universally gloomy."

The contrast is striking. Already quickening before 2004, growth rates in Eastern Europe have accelerated since the newcomers reached Brussels. Last year the 15 older members managed only a sluggish rate of 1.5 percent, compared with nearly 10 percent for, say, Estonia or 6 percent for the Czech Republic. "The new members have benefited hugely from integration with the larger and prosperous economies of Western Europe," says Katynka Barysch of the Centre for European Reform in London. But don't look for much gratitude. According to the pollsters, support for EU membership in the 10 new states averages just 40 percent.

Certainly, a public distaste for the EU does no harm with voters. Elections in the Czech Republic earlier this month returned to power an avowedly Euro-skeptic government. In recent months the Polish government has courted popularity at home by its refusal to accept EU norms on a range of issues from cross-border mergers to the treatment of homosexuals. And the ruling coalition in Warsaw these days includes the ultranationalist Self Defence Party, pledged to renegotiate the terms of Poland's membership.

Where does the disillusionment come from? As Europe's more established Euro-skeptics tell it, the newcomers are finally awakening to the EU's inherently undemocratic--even sinister--nature. "The gap between the views of the elected and the electors has widened to a chasm," says Nigel Farage, a member of the European Parliament for the United Kingdom Independence Party, just back from a trip to Slovenia to drum up support for a newly formed Euro-skeptic party. …

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