"The end game of enlargement is under way," declared The Economist this week ("Knocking on the Union's door," 13 May). European Union (EU) enlargement is the biggest issue facing the applicant countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and the time for firmer schedules is drawing near. But no one seems to be able to agree on what the dates should be or even when the decision should be taken to define them.
The Economist surmises that the most likely course of action for Brussels will be "to announce dates at which the Commission expected to conclude its negotiations with particular countries" rather than specific dates for entry. Entry dates previously envisaged (2003 for the first wave) look set to slip: "It is now a more or less open secret that most EU members are thinking in terms of 2005-06 for the first intake." This is due to both the applicant countries and the EU itself being late with necessary reforms. The Economist's conclusion is in line with its assessment of 8 April that the EU will have to delay the entry of all first-wave countries until Poland catches up with the leading applicants, around 2005-06 (as reported in this column five weeks ago).
"The fear now," continues the article, "is of any fresh disruption that might push the date of the first new entry back even beyond 2005-06. That would undoubtedly spark a crisis of confidence among the applicants."
The German jitters
However, political leaders across Europe were lining up to deny publicly that they are settling for the 2005-06 deadline. As The Economist points out, Poland is determined to push for entry on 1 January 2003 as planned, even while its government struggles to carry through the huge body of legislation required to meet EU criteria. Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek confirmed the 2003 goal in a news conference in Denmark on 10 May.
In a joint press conference with Czech President Václav Havel on the same day, Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schröder insisted that the EU would be ready by the end of 2002 to accept new members as soon as they complied with acceptance criteria. He even "brushed off recent comments by German business leaders who said no candidate would be able to join the EU before 2004," saying that they were of little interest to him. ("Schröder foresees new EU entrants by 2002," Financial Times, 11 May). French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin had made a similarly confident declaration on EU readiness at a meeting with the prime ministers of the four Visegrad group countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) on 4 May.
With such high-level endorsement of the early entry of the first-wave countries one might conclude that there is a real determination to overcome the problems and achieve the 2002-03 deadline. Or one might take the cynical viewpoint and surmise that, with so many big guns turning out in such a short space of time to emphasise the point, something smells funny: they must believe it's not possible...
There are different currents working on different levels. In Germany, public enthusiasm for enlargement is muted and becoming weaker. The Times (Roger Boyes, "Germans face identity crisis at end of European affair," 11 May) reported an opinion poll showing how Germans are falling out of love with the EU: half of them now feel they are losing their national identity through European integration, which Boyes attributes to the growing realisation that the deutschmark, post-war Germany's greatest national symbol, will soon disappear. Just 40 per cent of Germans declared themselves proud to be European.
In addition, Germans are also becoming generally ambivalent towards enlargement: "There was agreement that the EU should enlarge eastwards, because Central Europeans 'are Europeans too,' but there was no great enthusiasm. A 54 per cent majority said that enlargement would weaken the EU, while 23 per cent thought it would be a strengthening factor." Indeed, Germany's growing wariness of its neighbours to the East, reflecting recent events in Austria, is evidenced in the rise in support for the CDU's new leader Angela Merkel, who has positioned herself as an opponent of immigration and is far more sceptical of integration and enlargement than her now-disgraced predecessor Helmut Kohl. As The Economist says, "the management of German public opinion may be the most delicate piece of the whole operation... a last-minute fit of German jitters could still wreck the project - and do horrible damage to the EU in the process."
In Britain, the debate on EU enlargement tends to take place in the more specialised pages of the serious broadsheet press. The public as a whole probably has only a vague awareness, if that, of the historic changes already agreed to in principle. Coverage of the issue in the tabloid press is largely reduced to occasional passing references, for example, in the middle of an article on asylum and immigration policy. The debate on the single currency has received far more attention than that on enlargement. In part, this is because the sceptical strand that has tended to dominate British policy towards the EU over the past 15 years saw enlargement only as a way of stalling or scuppering moves by the Mitterrand-Kohl axis towards currency union and federalism.
The euro is all but upon us, of course, even if it is experiencing a drawn-out and painful labour which some still feel could end in a stillbirth. But in order for the Union to welcome the new members, who could number as many as 12 or 13 over the next decade, it is generally accepted that major institutional reforms need to be carried out. The principal changes required are, firstly, to limit the size of the European Commission in order to enable it to function as an effective body, which may mean countries such as Britain losing one of its two commissioners. Secondly, with as many as 27 members possible, it is proposed - not without significant resistance from some quarters - that qualified majority voting must be extended to more policy areas. Both of these changes will be resisted by politicians all over Europe opposed to ceding power to supra-national insitutions.
Further obstacles to be resolved include the level of subsidies provided to farmers in the new member states under the Common Agricultural Policy, which is already popularly perceived in Britain as an inefficient and unfair means of paying militant French farmers to overproduce. There is also strong opposition to granting complete free movement of labour from the new candidate countries. Austria, which borders the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary, claims that up to 110,000 workers from its new EU neighbours will commute to work across its borders in the first five years after border controls are removed ("Schröder foresees new EU entrants by 2002," Financial Times, 11 May). The Austrian government insists it wil maintain temporary border controls, and The Economist predicts it and Germany will be allowed to do so for perhaps as long as ten years.
At the end of all the various legislation and agreements, all member states of the EU, both old and new, will need to ratify the accession treaty or treaties, which is unlikely to occur swiftly.
In this atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty, the immigration scare stories keep coming. In Britain this issue has grown to define something of a political cleavage, separating one party or newspaper from another. Hence, within the same week, official statistics on asylum and immigration can produce headlines such as "Magnet for refugees: Labour accused as new figures show Britain is 'asylum capital of Europe'" in the Daily Mail (9 May) and "Bill for asylum seekers soars to GBP 900m a year" in The Times (11 May), while The Guardian decides that "Asylum backlog could be cut" (12 May).
The Daily Star took the prize for chauvinism this week: a front-page report on a violent protest by six asylum seekers in Newcastle over the conditions in which they were being held was entitled "Stuff your grub: Asylum seekers revolt over FREE bed and board." The headline on the continuation page inside was even more disturbing, drawing on a line usually only reserved for French farmers and beef crises, the Star gleefully crowed, "Asylum seekers are revolting." How clever.
Conservative leader William Hague credited his tough campaign on issues of asylum and law and order for his party's success in local elections on 4 May (Michael White and Lucy Ward, "We've closed the gap to 8 per cent, says Hague," The Guardian, 11 May). Hague saw the stance as a chance to place some clear blue water between his party and that of Tony Blair, whose policies, it is widely felt, have barely differed from those expected of a Tory government. However, the Conservatives' loss of their normally safe parliamentary seat of Romsey to the centrist Liberal Democrats in a by-election on the same day suggested tactical voting against the Conservatives - quite possibly a sign of public distaste in that constituency for the very same tough campaign lauded by Hague and labelled "saloon-bar" opportunism and extremism by Liberal leader Charles Kennedy. The Liberal Democrats have stood out in their opposition to the public campaign against asylum seekers, led by both the Labour government and the Conservative opposition.
On the positive need of the immigration issue, the emergence of new thinking, as covered in this column before, is a welcome development that has, in part, been stimulated by the current controversies. Anatole Kaletsky is another to speak up, highlighting a change in public thinking in the USA which recognises the need for immigrants to revitalise the economy and may soon see "an amnesty which would grant US citizenship to an estimated six million illegal immigrants." ("America's open house for cheap labour," The Times, 11 May).
The rise of the immigration question in the UK seems to mirror similar debates going on in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere in the EU - and, speak it softly, in Austria, too - with the looming shadow of enlargement hanging over the issue. Whatever happened to EU enlargement as opportunity and moral imperative?
Happy in your job?
Workers in Central and Eastern Europe are the least satisfied in the whole continent, according to new research. British workers finished only slightly higher up the list, trailing well behind the leading nation: those happy Danes, 62 per cent of whom declared themselves very satisfied or completely satisfied with their work.
The survey was compiled by two academics, Professor Andrew Oswald of the UK's University of Warwick and David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College in the USA, who conducted face-to-face interviews with 19,000 workers in 25 countries worldwide, reported Mark Atkinson in The Guardian ("You don't have to be happy to work here," 9 May).
Propping up the list were Hungary, at 23 per cent, Bulgaria (26 per cent), Poland and Slovenia (both 27 per cent) and the Czech Republic (30 per cent). In the territory of the former German Democratic Republic the figure was 30 per cent, while in the former West Germany it was 39 per cent. No attempt was made by Atkinson to explain the levels of unhappiness in CEE countries.
Professor Oswald, who specialises in the economics of happiness, suggested that the British, at 36 per cent, came further down the list than they ought to given their general level of prosperity. He proposed that the explanation for job dissatisfaction in Britain may lie in job insecurity and longer commutes. Labour market flexibility has been a mantra of all British governments since the supply-side reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister, 1979 to 1990) and has often been given considerable credit for the decline in UK unemployment levels in the 1990s; the down side of this high level of flexibility is insecurity in employment and a culture of working longer hours. The increasing time people spend commuting to work is probably caused by worsening road congestion and public transport links, as well as the relocation of homes and businesses away from city centres.
Mad about dogs, not Englishmen
Readers of this column last week will recall the Dorchester Gladiators, a "veterans" rugby team from the West of England, whose members were stunned to find that their opponents in the opening match of their recent Romanian rugby tour were none other than the first team of Steaua Bucharest, the host nation's leading club side.
A postcript to the incident was provided in the form of a letter to The Guardian this week, from a reader in Berkshire (Alan Day, "Foul Play," 8 May), suggesting the cause of the incident may not have been erratic translation. He recalls how, as a member of the Bath University Football Club tour to Romania in 1981, despite expecting to play against a "Romanian youth team," he was taken to the Dinamo Bucharest stadium and there encountered a team including seven Romanian internationals - which he only discovered from reading a newspaper article after the game had ended in a creditable 6-0 defeat. "I sympathise with the Dorchester Gladiators," wrote Mr Day, "but a translation error - I think not, the Romanians like to win."
A far greater level of hospitality is shown by Romanians to their dogs, reported Jonathan Cook in The Guardian this week ("email: Jonathan Cook @ Bucharest," 8 May). Up to a quarter million stray dogs populate the streets of Bucharest, and despite causing 300 locals to be treated for bites every month, they are apparently the recipients of affection from almost everyone: "Most residents know the dogs that 'belong' to their apartment block and feed them as though they were pets."
Cook locates the origin of this fondness for dogs in a "lingering sense of solidarity" left over from the era of Ceausescu, whose programme of destroying rural communities to make way for Soviet-style heavy industry led to Romanians losing "the two things that most symbolised home - their garden allotment and their dog." Feeding stray dogs in the capital maintains a link to that past.
Cook does not compare this attitude towards dogs to that of Romanians towards visiting amateur sports teams. But he does make the more serious contrast with their much-criticised coldness towards the plight of the poor children in state orphanages. He quotes a man called Lumi from Bucharest who comes to the defence of his countrymen: "Foreigners do not realise how little Romanians knew about the orphanages for a long time. The orphans were not visible, not like the dogs on the streets. Now, when so many people are poor, hungry and living in cramped apartments, they don't feel they can take the responsibility of adopting a child. It's much easier to be a parent to a stray dog."
It's not just dogs that you might find wandering Romanian streets: bears and wolves, too, visit the city of Brasov at night. What is more, according to a report from the conservationist movement World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK), the presence of such predators could well be a valuable tourist attraction. Bears, wolves and lynx still survive in Europe, notes James Meikle ("How tourists could save Europe's natural born killers," The Guardian, 10 May), but they are threatened by disappearing habitat and persecution by humans, their numbers having now dwindled to dangerously low levels.
"Carnivore tourism" is the report's suggested answer. The Carpathian mountains in Romania, which Meikle says "are home to the largest population of bears, wolves and lynx in any European country outside Russia," are held up as an example of the possibilities offered by responsible tourism. Another area also cited as suitable for nature tourism is the national park of Bialowieza in Poland, where wolf-tracking is said to be popular.
Expanding this currently small sector of tourism could provide funds for maintaining predators' habitats, while also creating local jobs; through the incentive of such employment, locals would also come to identify with the interests of the endangered animals, which would reinforce the longer-term prospects of both. Though one feels sceptical about the prospect of tourism supplying long-term solutions to conservation problems, the current alternative - doing nothing - comes a poor second.
Oliver Craske, 13 May 2000