Last month, the polling organisation Eurobarometer revealed that only 27 per cent of EU citizens regarded enlargement ("welcoming new member countries") as a priority—far behind the fight against unemployment and poverty, the maintenance of peace and security and the protection of the environment.
But beyond this indifference, Eurobarometer's poll also documents the lack of support among the population for the idea of enlargement itself. The Swedes are most likely to be supportive of enlargement (with 61 per cent of those polled giving approval), but the average support in the fifteen EU countries is only 38 per cent. The two most sceptical states as far as enlargement is concerned are, somewhat unsurprisingly, Austria (with 30 per cent supporting the idea) and France (26 per cent).
Yet, the reasons for the scepticism of Austria and France are arguably very different.
Upsetting the balance
Many French, who are still traditionally "integrationist" and committed to the European Union, see enlargement as a danger, because of the strain it could put on EU institutions. If, as pro-European French politicians and President Jacques Chirac keep repeating, "Europe [read the EC and its successor, the EU] has brought us [France] fifty years of peace," enlargement is perceived as problematic if it comes at the expense of "deepening" and jeopardises the achievements and acquis communautaire of the Union.
The French, who very often use "Europe" and the "European Union" as synonyms, still have problems seeing the Czechs, the Poles or the Hungarians as "Europeans," and the recent crisis with the Freedom Party in Austria has been widely perceived as a sign of what might happen if the enlargement goes ahead.
Some French, fearful of German power, consider, rightly or wrongly, that Central Europe is very much a German sphere of economic, cultural and political influence and that enlargement could as a consequence reinforce Germany and destabilise the "Franco-German motor."
Furthermore, the always important agricultural lobby has the power to bring France to a standstill by blockading the highways, and the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy needed to allow the adhesion of Central European states to the EU is not likely to be easily accepted by French farmers (no matter what French politicians might say about the traditional friendship between France and Poland).
Chirac repeated last week that France, who holds the presidency of the EU and will host the European summit in Nice in less than a month, is "determined to come to a substantial result in Nice. We do not intend to accept a modest result which would not allow the management of tomorrow's enlarged Europe."
Yet, the French population is far less enthusiastic than its president about an enlarged Europe, which explains why, when Günter Verheugen, the European commissioner in charge of enlargement suggested in September in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung that referendums should be organised in each member state before the adhesion of Central and East European states to the EU, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine expressed his "surprise"—and privately, one would think, his disagreement.
Significantly, perhaps, the publication on Wednesday 8 November of the "2000 Regular Reports from the Commission on Progress towards Accession" received very limited coverage in France, a symptom of French indifference (if not outright opposition).
Ready to veto
Austria provides, in this respect, a sharp contrast to France. Given Austria's geographical situation, enlargement matters very much to the Austrian elites and to the Austrian population, and it has become a major polarising factor between political parties.
EU enlargement is clearly one of the issues which could lead to a split between the two coalition partners, the People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Worryingly, journalist Herbert Lackner noted in an article for the magazine Profil (23 October 2000) that the pro-enlargement ÖVP of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner seemed more and more willing to take into account the views of its notoriously sceptical partner.
The conservative Die Presse even reported this week (11 November 2000) rumours that Austria might officially block the conclusion of the negotiations on the energy chapter with the Czech Republic and Slovenia, because of its concerns about the safety of the nuclear power plants at Temelín and Krško.
What is striking about Austria's approach to enlargement is the differentiation political leaders and public opinion make between applicant states. Schüssel indeed emphasises his vision of enlargement as the outcome of the evaluation of each applicant on its own merits, rather than as a process to be conducted by "waves."
The Czech Republic is, in this context, the applicant state with which Austria (not only because of Temelín) has by far the worst relations and which would have the most to lose were Austria to decide to use its right to veto on enlargement.
There was, therefore, probably an element of Schadenfreude when the European Commission Progress Report turned out to be rather critical of the Czech authorities: the social democratic Der Standard called the report "a cold shower" and a "shock" for the Czech Republic, and Die Presse talked about a "disappointment" for the Czechs.
Austrian foreign policy has more or less reflected this attitude, and the summit held on Friday 10 November in the Slovak castle of Bojnice between Schüssel and his Slovak and Hungarian counterparts, Mikuláš Dzurinda and Viktor Orbán, pointedly illustrated where the priorities of Austria lie at the moment (even if this yearly tripartite Austria-Hungary-Slovakia summit, which strangely excludes the Czech Republic, was started as an initiative of former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky as early as 1995).
Yet, characterising the French attitude towards enlargement as "indifference" and the Austrian attitude as "opposition" and "differentiation" is problematic, and the two countries might be more similar in their view of enlargement than they would like to admit.
The Austrian finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, received implicit praise from Die Presse when he remarked on Tuesday 7 November that France "hides itself behind Austria" when it comes to enlargement. Grasser notes that singling out Austria as the trouble-maker gives France a convenient excuse to
In France, and even more so in Austria, enlargement is in any case an issue where the division between public opinion and elites is evident. The recent Danish referendum on the euro must have sent alarm bells ringing in Brussels, and the European Commission announced on Wednesday that it would launch a EUR (euro) 150 million information campaign to address and alleviate the concerns of the EU population about enlargement: "enlargement can only be successful as a social project if all the citizens, not only the elites, participate."
Austria and France would definitely appear to be two countries in which the Commission should concentrate its efforts, if it is to further the good and just cause of enlargement.
Magali Perrault, 13 November 2000
Also of interest:
- The 2000 Progress Reports in full
- CER update on accession candidates, May 2000
- CER commentary on the 1999 Progress Reports
- The 1999 Progress Reports in full
- Archived CER articles on EU affairs
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
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