Polish discussions with the European Union (EU) have generated some welcome coverage of the EU enlargement issue in the British press this week. The process by which new member states from Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe are moving towards joining the expanding club is entering a crucial phase now, as the scheduled entry date of 2002 or 2003 for the first wave of applicants approaches rapidly with much still to be resolved.
Following criticism last year by the EU Commission of Polish delays in enacting necessary laws, on 6 April 2000 Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Bużek was in Brussels to appeal for EU accession negotiations to be accelerated. Mr Bużek met with Commission president Romano Prodi, whose recent comments on the need for the EU to be tough in enlargement negotiations had created quite a stir in Poland. After the meeting Mr Bużek declared that he was confident negotiations could be complete in the first half of 2001 given necessary commitment from both sides, and he volunteered a "great leap forward" in law-making in the next six months to achieve Poland's side of the bargain.
However, The Economist ('Who will join Europe's club') noted that Poland is not as prepared as its admirers might wish: "That matters a lot, because Poland dwarfs any other applicant country in population, market size and strategic importance. Getting it quickly and securely into the EU has been a top political priority of the whole enlargement venture."
As John Reed noted in the Financial Times this week, Poland boasts "a growing local market of 39 million to sell to," tight monetary policy, hard currency reserves of $26bn, and a strong currency "which has climbed by more than 10 per cent in nominal terms against the euro since November, despite an annual inflation rate of 10 per cent," (However, Reed expects that the złoty is heading for a fall.)
But with vital accession issues including agricultural subsidies and free movement of labour remaining unresolved, and simultaneous concerns about the preparedness of both Poland and the EU itself, grave doubts hang over the original timetable. "Few EU diplomats believe Poland's 2003 objective is achievable and some Commission officials doubt whether Mr Bużek's coalition is strong enough to reach its legislative timetable goals," wrote Michael Smith in the Financial Times.
If Poland cannot make the scheduled entry date, The Economist sees two options (after considering allowing other countries in before Poland, it decides this is too dangerous since it would risk a backlash of opinion in Poland): firstly, allowing Poland in with the first group regardless of entry criteria; or secondly, delaying the entry of all first-wave countries until Poland catches up.
"Of these two options, the later enlargement would have much to be said for it," suggests The Economist,
It would postpone big claims on the EU budget from new members. If it took place in, say, 2005 or 2006, a lot of countries might be ready to join in at once, which would be convenient in other ways. With ten countries joining together, there would be no need to erect physical and bureaucratic borders around early joiners, only to dismantle them a couple of years later when their neighbours followed. There would be a single bundle of accession treaties that governments and parliaments across the EU could all ratify together.
Neat as this 'big bang' view of enlargement may sound, but as the article confesses, although it may now be 'in the air', it has the support of neither the Commission nor the two most likely first wave states, Poland and Hungary. And if the negotiations prove so protracted now between the EU and its star apprentices, how much less likely will it be that agreement can be reached simultaneously with ten states of more varying qualifications in three or four years' time? The Economist's recommendation sounds like a charter for yet more delay.
Deeper or wider?
Yet the problem still remains of how to deal with the situation. Ultimately this comes back to the problem which lies at the heart of the future development of the EU. The process of introducing new states into the EU inevitably runs up against a conflict between deepening or widening the Union. As more and more countries join, is it still feasible to expect all the varied legal and economic situations in the multiplicity of states to converge, as is believed necessary to permit economic and monetary union, still the avowed aim of most current EU member governments? (And once these new states are inside, will effective decision-making be possible with so many actors involved?)
Imposing high barriers to entry to ensure convergence has the effect of slowing the rate at which the new members are welcomed into the fold. It may well ultimately risk the abandonment of the enlargement venture. There are undoubtedly some already in the EU who would not be too disappointed at this outcome.
On the other hand, permitting the new wave to join ahead of their meeting strict convergence and other criteria, may well either permanently consign the EU to a two-speed economic system -- if the new applicants remain outside EMU -- or risk a crisis in the eurozone if they are allowed straight into the single currency. Again, there are undoubtedly some already in the EU who would not be too disappointed at either of these outcomes, and many of them seem to run British newspapers. Can such a circle be squared?
The wheels come off
One of the leading news stories in the past month in Britain has been the sudden and controversial sale by German car giant BMW of its subsidiary Rover's loss-making Longbridge car plant, with the inevitable loss of thousands of jobs in the Midlands. It now transpires that Hungary may be a possible beneficiary: this week BMW resumed exploratory talks with the Hungarian government about setting up a factory in Hungary to make up to 500,000 cars per year, with a view to switching production capacity there from Britain.
The middle-market tabloid newspaper Daily Mail often strikes a highly parochial note when dealing with matters across the English Channel, let alone those involving Central and Eastern Europe. The paper's motoring correspondent Ray Massey noted that, "It was the European Union's refusal to believe that BMW was serious when it said it might switch the planned production of the car from Rover's Longbridge plant in Birmingham to Hungary that caused a delay in the company receiving grants. That delay ultimately sealed Rover's fate. Brussels bureaucrats," a pet hate of the Mail, "had dismissed the possibility as a German 'bluff' to secure GBP 152 million in aid from the British Government."
The Mail was in restrained form on this occasion, but it will be interesting to see whether in the future the papers at this more avowedly patriotic end of the press will be able to resist taking pot shots at the commercial rivalry presented increasingly by firms in Central Europe. After all, such free market competition is an intended element of the planned EU membership of countries such as Hungary. But how will the British media react when British jobs are lost; will it claim they are being stolen? And will this be used to justify not welcoming Hungary and its fellow EU membership applicants into the fold?
NATO Enlargement plans on hold too?
Another article this week focused attention on the 'crumbling dream' of NATO enlargement. Christopher Lockwood in The Daily Telegraph reported that nearly all enthusiasm for welcoming new member states to NATO, in the wake of the entry of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in March 1999, seems to have disappeared.
Lack of enthusiasm from the USA, concern for the reaction of the new Russian leadership, and the ambivalent public support for NATO in the three recent entrants have combined to put future enlargement on the back burner. The consequence, argues Lockwood, may be another continental divide: "The experience of enlarging NATO has been so painful and divisive that, for the Baltic states and the countries of the Balkans, a new Iron Curtain may fall."
Justin Sparks in The Daily Telegraph picks up on another aspect of American policy towards the region: plans to set up new FBI offices in Prague, Budapest and Warsaw. US agents will advise and assist their local counterparts in combating money-laundering, drug-running and human-trafficking, acting as a counterweight to the influence of Russian mafia. Sparks claims the prospective 'American invasion' has produced "a revival of Cold War rhetoric among hostile residents and indignant local police."
James Weber, FBI spokesman for international affairs, is reported as revealing that, "The FBI believes that it is essential to station more of its highly skilled Special Agents in other countries to prevent terrorism and foreign crime from reaching into the US to kill and harm Americans." Evidence of a siege mentality? He certainly doesn't sound bothered about Central Europeans.
However, a political analyst at Prague's Charles University, Zdeněk Zbořil, is cited as being enthusiastic for a pragmatic approach: "The skill of living in this part of the world is knowing which horse to back. And personally I would rather have the Americans here than the Russians."
Oliver Craske, 6 April 2000
Michael Smith, "Poles press for EU entry," Financial Times, 6 April 2000
John Reed, "Strong zloty a mixed blessing," Financial Times, 6 April 2000
Christopher Lockwood, "Nato plans for eastward enlargement put on hold," Daily Telegraph, 3 April 2000. [You will need to register to access The Telegraph's archives, ed]
Justin Sparks, "It's American imperialism to replace the Soviet kind," Daily Telegraph, 2 April 2000 [You will need to register to access The Telegraph's archives, ed]