The EU: Love It Or Leave It

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Tomas Jirsa, a confident, gum-chewing 19-year-old from Prague, is standing on Kildare Street in Dublin, handing out leaflets and wearing a bright red vest that proclaims: I'm from the Czech Republic and against nice — ask me why. Nice is shorthand for the European Union enlargement treaty the Irish government dearly wants voters to ratify this Saturday. (They already rejected it once, last year, thanks to a swirl of conflicting emotions: fear that it would undercut Irish neutrality and sovereignty; an urge to give a bloody nose to the government of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.) If the Irish vote yes this time, 10 new countries, including the Czech Republic, will join the E.U. in little more than a year — a momentous result that the European Commission last week proudly confirmed was still on track. But if they vote no, the treaty will collapse and the historic process of extending the Union to encompass countries once locked behind the Iron Curtain will be knocked sideways, if not into reverse.

So why is Jirsa rooting for the deal to die? "I'm totally pro-European!" he says. But he has read the fine print of the Nice Treaty and doesn't like the terms — this young man from a former communist country thinks they're undemocratic. "It changes the whole European scheme in favor of the big nations," he argues. Countries will lose their veto rights on some issues; a cozy club of longtime members will be permitted to cook up cooperation schemes that exclude newcomers; no longer will each nation be perpetually guaranteed a commissioner in Brussels. "The current arrangements are working well enough. I want to be part of Europe, but the old Europe,"

he insists, before walking down a quiet street (only a few people have bothered to ask him about Nice, as it turns out, and most of them are reporters). He boards an open-topped double-decker bus full of like-minded activists from Estonia, Finland, Denmark and Slovenia — a sign on the side calls it the speak-up-for-small-nations democracy tour. Until Saturday's vote, the tour will be zooming around Ireland — which happens to be the biggest net beneficiary of E.U. subsidies — trying to convince its voters to make the E.U. harder for other small nations to join.

Different place, same cold feet: it's evening in Skaradki, a tiny village near Lodz in the Polish heartland. The primary school gym is decked out with bunting and tables are groaning with homemade sausages and dumplings as about 450 people from all over Poland gathered for a farmers' congress toss back vodka at a rate their visitor cannot match. Danuta Hübner, the demure and determined Polish Minister for European Affairs, has been hitting the boards in places like Skaradki for months to persuade Poles to vote yes to joining the E.U. in the national referendum set for next year.

Amid the din, one of the delegates turns to her and speaks softly. "If we held an open vote in this room about joining the E.U., 100% would vote no," the man says. "But if you did a secret ballot, 90% would say yes." Why? In public, the farmers don't want to be seen capitulating to sinister forces from Brussels who are thought to be paving the way for a German conquest-by-checkbook. But privately, they have already calculated how much their E.U. subsidies will be worth.

Having renounced Karl Marx, the people of the east are finding that Europe is like the club described by Groucho: not quite so desirable now that it will take them as members. What began as a grand project to reunite the sundered halves of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is ending as a cold calculation of structural funds and subsidy levels. What used to be about blood and passion — binding wounds, seizing the historical moment, forging a common future — is now about getting paid and looking out for No. 1. Make a stirring speech about unifying the Continent for the first time since Charlemagne and you'll get hooted out of the public square; emphasize how membership can cut tariffs and boost the bottom line and you may have company — at least from people who run companies. The thrill is gone, replaced on both sides of the E.U. divide by the familiar grind of competing national, corporate and individual interests.

The mood isn't uniformly ugly. In each of the 10 candidate countries there are more people in favor of joining the E.U. than against it. In most, a large apathetic minority has no opinion. But the Speak-Up-for-Small-Nations Democracy Tour and Skaradki's ambivalent farmers are only two examples of disenchantment among those very people who not so long ago were clamoring to get in.

Romanian President Ion Iliescu may be right when he says that "nowhere does the word Europe vibrate more strongly and with more emotion than in the countries of the east," but the vibrations are becoming dissonant. Polls show that the nations most enthusiastic about the E.U. are farthest from admission (support for membership in Bulgaria and Romania, which won't get in until 2007 at the earliest, tops 70%). Those closest to joining are increasingly dubious (in only four of the 10 candidate countries do more than half the population think accession is a good thing). And those already inside the E.U. like it least (across the Union, less than 50% of people surveyed think membership is beneficial). Why does everyone seem so sick and tired of the E.U. — even before getting in?

In the so-called aspirant countries, some fear that E.U. entry will be a step back rather than a great leap forward. Since independence from the Soviet Union, Estonia's leaders have made the country a laboratory of the free market. In the early 1990s, Estonia slashed nearly all state subsidies, privatized virtually all state assets and unilaterally dropped all trade tariffs. As a result, the country's GDP is growing at more than 5% and it is tied for fourth (with Ireland, among others, ironically enough) in the Heritage Foundation's index of economic freedom. Perversely, in order to join the E.U., Estonia will be required to become more protectionist — reimposing several thousand tariffs it had previously abolished. Employers grouse about workplace regulations, from paid vacations to health and safety standards, designed for countries whose GDP per head is three times greater than theirs.

Even though their refurbished roads bear signs saying brought to you by the E.U., only 33% of Estonians and Latvians think joining is a good thing. That's less than in any other candidate country. Many regard the Union as quasi-socialist and culturally homogenizing — a hit song from Latvia starts "Europe will not understand us." None of that translates into political opposition; Estonia's main parties are still pushing for entry. But they promote membership not as a blessing but as protection against getting swallowed up by a revanchist Russia, or as an obligatory move for a tiny country with a population of less than 1.5 million.

Igor Gräzin, a prominent euroskeptic law professor, strikes a chord with his puckish comparison between the E.U. and the U.S.S.R. "The parallels are perfect," he says. "The only difference is that the Soviets rewarded you if you overproduced, the E.U. if you underproduce."

The Estonian Director of the Office of European Integration, Henrik Hololei, understands why some people object. "It's interesting that this trend is growing particularly active and sizable in those potential member countries that are developing quicker than others," he says. "People there realize more clearly that the E.U. does not give answers to all the questions. Most people can live with this. Some cannot."

Slovenia is another country with good reason to wonder whether the E.U. is all it's cracked up to be. The Slovene economy is already a favorite of Western investors, with modernized laws and 4% growth. It's doing so well that its per capita GDP of $16,000 is already 69% of the E.U. average — which sounds great but could turn out to be a problem. When per capita GDP hits 75%, expected in 2004, Slovenia will be disqualified from access to the structural subsidies that would otherwise flow from E.U. membership. So far the government hasn't been able to negotiate a deal to avoid the bizarre and politically disastrous outcome of being penalized for economic growth.

A debate has sprung up in Slovenia about whether the government should take the absurd step of cooling the economy down to remain eligible for subsidies. "Hogwash," says Janez Potocnik, the Minister for European Affairs. "I would gladly postpone joining the E.U. if we could raise our GDP by another percentage point." The 53% of Slovenians who either think that joining the E.U. is a bad idea or are neutral can be excused for their lack of enthusiasm.

Overall, melding their economies with the west is expected to boost the incomes of people in the accession countries. But before reaching this promised land there will be higher unemployment and a growing gap between rich and poor as inflation hits basics like food and energy. And Europe's core economies may not prove quite the locomotive the new riders had hoped. Existing members are constrained by E.U. rules that curb their powers to lower taxes or run deficits even as growth slumps. And public expectations in the candidate countries are out of whack. "People have in mind the systemic change back in the early 1990s," says Péter Balázs, Hungary's Secretary of State for European Integration. Then, the free market plus foreign investment sparked a revolution, but those huge shifts have been absorbed. "They think this time will be similar. It won't."

Even so, the E.U. is being sold as something that will fatten people's wallets. But voters in the aspirant countries seem to know better. They can see that Germany's reunification is still sputtering despite hundreds of billions of euros spent to fuel prosperity in the east. Yet existing E.U. members plan to spend no more than [EURO] 40 billion to subsidize newcomers through 2006. That amounts to less than .15% of their GDP, and the financing after 2006 is still to be decided.

Under such abstemious rules, enlargement is certain to produce losers as well as winners. Currently protected industries like steel, food and telecoms will suffer as national tariffs and subsidies are cut, while small companies may find themselves becoming part of the food chain for foreign invaders — or going bust because they can't afford E.U. safety and environmental standards.

Among the biggest losers will be farmers, who have become enlargement's most vocal opponents. They know that products from existing members, heavily subsidized by the Common Agricultural Policy, will swamp them once trade barriers disappear — and that their own subsidies from Brussels will be limited at first to one-quarter of Western levels. Romania, due to join in 2007, shows the problems most starkly. It has 5.1 million farms of less than three hectares, compared to an average farm size of 18 hectares in existing E.U. countries; agriculture is responsible for 11% of its GDP, compared to 2% in the E.U. The dean of Ljubljana University, former Foreign Minister Joze Mencinger, has a mordant suggestion for protecting farming in the east. "We should really register it as a form of cultural activity," he says, like folk dancing. "It has more to do with our way of life than with profit."

There will, of course, be winners too. Big business will certainly gain, including some homegrown entrepreneurs in the east who have brought their firms up to Western standards but pay lower wages. "The E.U. is a chance for Polish products," says Klaudiusz Balcerzak, co-owner of several plants that now produce 17,000 tons of traditional meats a year. He already has fancy delicatessens in Berlin and Rome and the quality permits needed to export more of his products. "I would be very happy if we joined tomorrow — duties of 40% would vanish and I would become highly competitive both in quality and price."

Construction companies and local laborers will benefit too, from subsidies to build roads, waste-treatment plants and other infrastructure. The young and educated will gain opportunities for study and work abroad. That optimistic thought contributes to what Estonian pollster Ainar Voog calls the "Grandma Factor" — older people, who might end up losing out from enlargement themselves, "support entry because they see it will be good for their children and grandchildren."

The 80,000 pages of laws and regulations attached to the E.U.'s admission ticket are sweeping away a lot of fond familiar ways. In August, for example, Czechs had to give up their tradition of choosing unwrapped donuts and other pastries with their hands, because of E.U. health regulations. There were pungent protests. Individually these sorts of changes don't amount to much, but collectively they make people nervous that their national cultures will disappear. Václav Klaus, a former Czech Prime Minister and a vocal euroskeptic, says, "We mustn't allow ourselves to dissolve in Europe like a sugar cube in a cup of tea."

Another unhappy realization beginning to dawn on the applicants is that the fraternity they're joining is going to haze them. Full agricultural subsidies won't be available for at least seven years — otherwise France and Germany would have vetoed enlargement to protect their farmers and budgets. Free movement of new members' citizens to work and live throughout the E.U. will be restricted for at least five years, to make sure politicians in the core countries don't face voter ire about unrestrained immigration. Ludek Zahradnícek, a Czech official in charge of selling enlargement, realizes his compatriots "take this as discrimination and it could be understood this way." His counterargument: "At least 25% subsidies are better than zero subsidies." But second-class status still rankles.

And then there's a problem that frustrates the E.U.'s founders too: the remoteness and impenetrability of its institutions. Few E.U. detractors go so far as Uno Silberg, an Estonian who keeps a fanciful list of 22 reasons why the E.U. is like the Soviet Union (No. 5, Interpol is like the KGB; No. 11, the European Commission is similar to the Politburo). But many in the east suspect the Brussels game will be permanently rigged against the novices — whose combined GDP, after all, is about the same as the Netherlands'. Klaus says that the conditions of entry offered his country "were a totally unilateral dictate and that the chances of a small accession country influencing the process are negligible." He thinks staying out is impossible, but that Eastern and Central Europeans will find their homecoming a rude awakening: "I don't believe the fairy tales about a community of loving European states. It's a power struggle, where each country tries to maximize its gains."

In the European Convention now meeting under the leadership of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, delegates from around Europe, including the candidate countries, are exploring how to overhaul the E.U. to make it closer to voters and more effective. Its result, believes Liberal M.E.P. Andrew Duff, will be "a transfer of sovereignty" to the E.U.'s central institutions — which unless handled deftly could give nations with painful memories of Soviet-style diktats another reason to question where the E.U. bus is taking them.

That bus must first navigate the Irish speed bump. The danger is that with a no vote on Nice, enlargement will lose its sense of inevitability, and the whole enterprise will founder in a sea of squabbles. "It could be contagious," says Hübner, the Polish Minister for European Affairs, "and that would leave us with a case of hiccups for the rest of history."

Whatever the hiccups, history is still on the side of enlargement. It's true that the Union is showing more warts than in the early days after the Soviet collapse when the E.U. embodied what Prague-based analyst Jonathan Stein calls a "civilizational standard" for the newly democratic nations of the east, "a way of completing both symbolically and materially the move to the West." Now the aspirant countries are more skeptical. Their politicians still want in, but are trying to get better terms. This is not ingratitude, or irrationality, but maturity. Ardor has gone; a thoroughly modern — and Western — mix of self-interest, conflicting opinions and, yes, apathy has replaced it. Maybe that's a sign that this historic union will work after all: the newcomers will fit right into the club.