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No dancing in the streets for the EU

01 October 2003

The idea of `returning to Europe' was the leitmotif of the revolutions of 1989. Now that eight of the ten Central and East European candidates are about to realise this ambition, the question becomes what sort of Europe it will be. Completing the accession negotiations was a remarkable feat, but popular involvement has been minimal, leaving European citizens feeling ill-informed and, as a result, apprehensive about what is being done in their name. Hence the low turnout in the accession referendums, which was at least as striking as the decisive majorities obtained in favour of accession.
Opinion polls suggested that abstention was to be explained by a fatalistic sense of `no alternatives'. Around 70 per cent of respondents on average feel poorly informed about their country's accession to the EU, as a Eurobarometer poll found in November 2002. Expectations of the impact of EU membership seem to be sober: a majority expect no improvement in their personal socio-economic situation for at least 10 years. They voted for accession as a long-term investment that will benefit their children rather than themselves. The smaller countries, in particular, fear for their national identity and domination by a `faceless bureaucracy' in Brussels. New states having only recently escaped from communist federations are wary about the Union's federal aspects.
All the accession countries are acutely aware of their weaknesses -- even Poland, a relatively large and nationally self-confident state. The sense of geopolitical insecurity that underlay the Central and East Europeans' determination to `return to Europe' has been largely allayed by their recent or imminent accession to NATO, which is prized for its US guarantees. The development of European foreign and security policy is greeted with scepticism, and will be strongly resisted by all the accession countries if it detaches Europe from the United States. Yet citizens in all the new member states want a `strong Europe' to anchor their political and economic transformations. Trust in their own political institutions and élites is at a low ebb, so people in the new member states look to the EU to act as a constraint on misbehaviour by their national élites and to drive forward modernisation of their national institutions.
Ignorance and indifference about EU enlargement pervade public opinion in the existing member states, as a Eurobarometer poll confirmed in March 2003. And those people who feel most informed about the process are also the most sceptical, worried about jobs, wages and investment in competition with the newcomers. Nearly 70 per cent across the present 15 members feel that enlargement will be very costly for their country. They also wonder how the enlarged EU will function, and whether it will become even more remote and baffling. Those people who welcome EU enlargement are often unable to name more than one of the countries involved. But, strikingly, substantial majorities still agree that `we have a moral duty to re-unite Europe after the divisions of the Cold War' (72 per cent) and that enlargement is historically and geographically natural and justified. There is clear support for the EU to become a more effective international actor, and people expect enlargement to contribute to that.
So, for the acceding countries, EU enlargement has been a sobering, if not bruising process. For existing member states, it has coincided with increasing exposure over the past decade to global economic pressures and the retrenchment of welfare states. Europe is being reunited, but there is no dancing the streets. Instead, the prevailing climate is one of apprehension, disillusion, a certain amount of existential fear and mutual mistrust. Elites took charge of the process, but failed to provide visionary leadership that could capture the popular imagination and mobilise the energies that will be needed in the next difficult phase of absorbing and fully integrating the new member states.
Given all this, it is surprising how `EU-Europe' continues to exert a powerful attraction for the countries left outside. While some of the new member states, notably Poland, strongly support keeping the door open to further enlargements, and potential candidates in the Western Balkans are anxious to firm up a clearer timetable for accession, `enlargement fatigue' is evident in existing member states. At the same time, in most of the would-be candidates for accession, `transition fatigue' is setting in. If the EU is to act as an effective external motor of reforms in its neighbourhood, it has first to define that clear vision of itself that is so far lacking, in order to provide a convincing rationale for its further enlargement (or not), and to offer credible and attractive alternatives to membership for its neighbours.