As the heads of government prepare for their showdown summit in Nice next week, EU enlargement is at last approaching the front pages of the British press. And to be fair, Britain has continued to play its new role of standard-bearer for the applicant countries.
Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman (unelected but powerful and speaking in the voice of his master), said strangely that Britain would be the "unashamed champion" of enlargement to the east. What has shame got to do with it?
"In the past, Britain has been accused of wanting to widen Europe in order to avoid having to integrate more deeply," wrote Ian Black in The Guardian (29 November). This same conclusion has been reached before in this column (see Why the Change of Heart? and A Means As Well As an End).
But whatever the motivation, the British government is at least trying to sell enlargement to its public now. In a memo of 28 November distributed to the press, Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote, in words harking back to Chamberlain's infamous justification for the appeasement of Munich 1938: "We have to get across to the public that enlargement, the reason for the complicated negotiations at Nice, is not some dry subject concerning far away countries of which we know little, but vital to the future peace, prosperity and strength of Britain and the EU."
On 30 November French President Jacques Chirac conducted a whistlestop tour of European countries in advance of the summit. Over a pub supper in Tony Blair's constituency in northern England ("bistro diplomacy" according to a headline in The Guardian), he discussed summit plans with Blair.
"The purpose of this summit is to prepare us for enlargement of the European Union," Blair told the press assembled at Teesside Airport. Chirac responded that establishing peace, democracy and prosperity was "something that we have to do across the continent, we cannot re-establish borders and divides across the continent, we know how expensive it was for all of us in the last decades" (Foreign & Commonwealth Office Website).
Certainly, the enlargement agenda helps the government deal with the paranoid fears of a wide proportion of the UK media, which sees Chirac as part of a continent-wide plot to trap Britain into economic and then political union. But contrary to the beliefs of the Daily Mail end of the press, it's quite wrong to perceive the rest of the EU as a united federalising foe. Each country is going to Nice with its own agenda and its own national electorate to satisfy—and that includes France.
Nice will not be a straightforward battle between polar opposites, any more than it will be a meeting of principled minds bending over backwards for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). There will be, as Chirac puts it, "complex negotiations." Or there will rather be: horse-trading and compromises, lines drawn in the sand, secret deals and posturing for the purposes of national electorates. The EU will not settle everything that needs resolving, because it never does at these affairs. But at least enlargement has finally edged its way to the top of the agenda.
An article in The Guardian on 1 December examined the consequences of eastward expansion for poverty levels in the EU. David Piachaud's analysis argued that social cohesion, one of the EU's new strategic goals, will be greatly worsened by enlargement, given that the mean consumption level in the ten CEE applicant states is little over two-fifths that in current EU member states. The official poverty threshold is defined as 50 per cent of the EU average consumption, so the proportion of the EU population living in poverty stands to leap from 17 per cent to 30 per cent after these ten states join. "Will the candidates ever catch up?" he asked.
Another effect may be that existing regional development funds to countries such as Ireland and Spain will dry up, since they will no longer be poorer than average. Under current rules, such funds should be diverted eastwards instead. The same could happen on an even more drastic scale with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), given the size of both the agricultural sector in CEE states, especially Poland, and the CAP budget. But existing members will resist welcoming new members to an unreformed CAP. Piachaud also contemplated the possible effects of increased wealth inequalities in the EU on migration east to west. These are the some of the issues that will be fought over in Nice and beyond.
Behind the Lace Curtain
Chirac may have declared himself opposed to re-establishing divides across the continent, but this is not the view from Ustrzyki Gorne on the Polish Ukrainian border, from where David Hearst submitted a fine article in The Guardian on 29 November. EU member states are insisting that a new barrier be planned on the new eastern edge of the EU after enlargement to protect against Russians and Belarussians and other supposed undesirables. This is the so-called Belgian Curtain, or the "Lace Curtain" as Hearst terms it: the tangible sign of Fortress Europe.
"Yet viewed from Warsaw, membership of the EU was not supposed to be like this," wrote Hearst. "Why stop the process there, and not let Poland bring its eastern neighbours along behind them?"
He quoted the argument of Poland's Deputy Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski. He said that under Communism, it was through travel to other countries that "millions of Poles learned that free market democracy worked." Sikorski continued, "That is exactly what we want to show Belarus and Ukraine."
Meanwhile, in the Paris of the East...
A country that may be drifting to the wrong side of the Lace Curtain is Romania, which is faced with a twin-horned dilemma following its simultaneous embrace of both extremes in its parliamentary elections and the first round of voting for the presidency.
Beforehand, the British press were most concerned about the anticipated victory of the former Communist Party (PDSR) and their presidential candidate Ion Iliescu, fearing that he might "lead Romania further into a Balkan cul-de-sac" (The Independent, 25 November).
As late as Monday 27 November, before results had become clear, Phelim McAleer wrote in the Financial Times, "The PDSR's likely victory is being viewed with concern by foreign investors and western diplomats." The Independent described it as "a move that might scupper Romania's bid to join the European Union and Nato." The Daily Telegraph recorded the "widespread fear that the election of Mr Iliescu and his party would mean a major Left-wing swing, a slow-down in reforms and the curtailment of major privatisation projects."
Lesser of two evils
But as the ballots were announced, it became clear that the real story was the unexpected success of far-right nationalist Cordeliu Vadim Tudor and his Greater Romania Party. Suddenly Iliescu was in favour. The Financial Times' leader on 29 November viewed a possible Tudor win as a "disturbing prospect" and declared that "for the West, Mr Iliescu is, despite his Communist past, the lesser of two evils." On the same day, an editorial in The Guardian considered that a win for "the appalling Mr Tudor" would be "a disaster," while Marcus Tanner in The Independent wrote, "His political ascent confirms that Romania is drifting out of the West's orbit."
With two centrist parties throwing their weight behind Iliescu on 29 November, it is likely that he will triumph in the run-off on 10 December. Another showdown awaits. But whatever the outcome, as The Economist put it, "for Romanians who want to join the modern West, 26 November was not a good day."
Oliver Craske, 1 December 2000
- Archive of Oliver Craske's UK press reviews in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page
Foreign & Commonwealth Office London