The Ministerial Conference in Prague (the Czech Republic currently holds the EU presidency) on March 2 launched preparations for the 5th anniversary celebrations of the European Union’s “Great Leap” to the East, the largest EU enlargement in 2004 when it took in 10 new member countries, increasing its total membership from 15 to 25. EU membership has of course conferred huge benefits on all the new member countries. It would be disingenuous to argue the opposite. On average, standards of living registered a marked growth in all the “big wave” countries: in 1999 it was a mere 40% of the average European standard and at the end of last year it stood at 52%.
The problem is that the new countries have received from Europe much more than they have given it, if one does not count their territories. And they want to receive more, especially in the context of the financial crisis. The “new boys”, however, have a peculiar idea of the balance between their rights and obligations. They demand a degree of political clout, which, to put it mildly, does not match their economic, financial, demographic and territorial power, not to mention the fact that they have only just entered the EU.
The lingering grudges of the “Soviet times” manifest themselves in a strange and unhealthy obsession, a blanket rejection of Russia. This age-old resentment translates itself into the need for Old Europe to devote much more effort to “exhorting” the “post-communist” members than it would like to. A case in point was vetoing the start of negotiations on the new EU-Russia partnership and cooperation agreement. The previous agreement expired back in December 2007. First Poland vetoed it, then Lithuania. Brussels was hard put to induce them to withdraw their objections upon which negotiations started in September of last year.
There have always been differences in living standards, as well as the political and cultural mentalities between the EU’s West and East: five years of membership of Europe cannot overturn what has been established over decades. But now that the crisis has arrived, these differences are forging themselves into a new type of barrier. Ironically, in the year that sees the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (October 1989), that wall is acquiring a new, largely economic dimension. It has merely moved a little to the east and now runs along the border from the Baltic to the Adriatic roughly along the Poland-Czech Republic-Hungary-Slovenia and Bulgaria borderline.
The economic situation in the EU’s eastern and central member-states is so threatening that the capitals of the “Big Four” – Paris, Berlin, London and Rome – are very much afraid that the East would drag the whole of the West into a maelstrom of the banking collapse and economic downturn. Looking at Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia today, the EU is beginning to talk about “the Argentinas on the Danube” in reference to the “Silver Country’s” devaluation of its national currency and the collapse of its economy in 2001.
Economic divisions may stir up divisions in foreign policy. Greater Europe is of course consolidated technically by the Maastricht Treaty, by the euro zone, as well as many other agreements , not to mention by a sense of being European. But when some have pounds or euro in their pockets while others have only debts (Latvia and Baltic countrys), foreign policy unity has little chance for survival. There is no question of a common foreign policy.