Scramble for self-protection as enlargement enthusiasm flags

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Series Details Vol.7, No.21, 24.5.01, p6
Publication Date 24/05/2001
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Date: 24/05/01

There are two flagpoles outside the Czech embassy in Brussels. The Czech flag flies on one, but the other remains empty in anticipation of EU membership.

If the past month's enlargement talks are anything to go by, it might be quite a while before the EU emblem is hoisted, because after over a decade of pious pronouncements from politicians about the need to reunify Europe and heal the wounds of Yalta, EU leaders have reverted to what they do best - fighting like ferrets in a sack to defend their own national interests.

Spain has threatened to delay the whole enlargement process unless it receives cast-iron commitments that its poorer regions will not lose out as the Union grows - and Italy looks like it is following suit after the victory of Silvio Berlusconi in the elections.

The European Commission has kow-towed to German and Austrian claims that they risk being flooded by cheap workers from the east after enlargement.

Meanwhile, any hope of a radical reform to the Union's disastrous Common Agricultural Policy is being held hostage by Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac, who know that campaigning to remove farm subsidies is unlikely to hand them the keys to the Elysee.

No one ever believed that enlargement negotiations would be easy. Expanding the Union to the east was always going to cost buckets of money and spark a shake-up in the way the bloc doles out billions of euros in regional and agricultural funds.

But few could have predicted the lengths to which some countries have gone to protect their interests.

Take the free movement of workers - one of the cornerstones of the EU treaty and something the bloc desperately needs to encourage as its active population shrinks. Germany and Austria are worried that their labour markets will be swamped by millions of migrants.

However, past enlargements of the EU have shown this fear to be unfounded.

After Spain, Portugal and Greece joined the Union, there was only a trickle of workers northwards and there is little reason to believe it will be any different this time round.

Indeed, earlier this year the Commission concluded that "research suggests there will be no dramatic increase in migration and that the impact on the EU labour market should be limited".

So why did the EU executive agree to German and Austrian demands for a seven-year curb on eastern workers? The Commission talks of the "considerable anxiety" in the EU's border regions that "may well affect overall support for enlargement".

It is true that less than half of the EU's population favours taking in the 13 candidate countries. However, it is unlikely that this figure will rise by pandering to popular prejudices about the effects of labour mobility.

The Commission and EU member states might also want to consider the impact that treating candidate countries like second-class citizens will have on the streets of Budapest, Tallinn and elsewhere.

After 12 years spent waiting for the green light from Brussels, support for EU membership has already been haemorrhaging in some countries and any further delay could lead to the sort of surreal situation Groucho Marx joked about when he said: "I don't want to belong to a club that would accept me as a member".

Spanish and Italian fears about losing their entire regional aid handouts if all applicant countries joined the rich-man's are also grossly exaggerated.

No one is talking about a sudden big-bang enlargement that would include Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania. Spain knows as well as anyone else that these countries are not likely to enter the Union for at least a decade.

Madrid also knows that its regional aid will remain untouched until 2006. By then, the economies of fast-growing countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic will almost certainly have overtaken those of poorer EU states such as Greece and Portugal.

One of Napoleon the pig's most famous decrees in George Orwell's satire Animal Farm was that "all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others". As accession talks reach crunch time, EU negotiators must make sure that the united Europe they are trying to create is not based on the same two-tier division of states as the one it replaced.

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