A message for Europe's leaders: it's time to bring the East on board

Timothy Garton Ash, Michael Mertes, Aleksander Smolar, Jacques Rupnik Four of Europe's leading writers appeal to our political leaders to grasp the nettle of EU enlargement and set a firm timetable for welcoming other states into the club
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The Independent Online

The top priority for the European Union at the beginning of the 21st century must be the historic project concealed beneath the rather boring label "enlargement". The prize is something that has never been achieved in European history: the building of a liberal order that embraces the whole continent.

The top priority for the European Union at the beginning of the 21st century must be the historic project concealed beneath the rather boring label "enlargement". The prize is something that has never been achieved in European history: the building of a liberal order that embraces the whole continent.

To press on with this is now more vital than ever - and more difficult. It is more difficult because public opinion in core countries of the Union, especially Germany and France, and in leading applicant countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, is increasingly sceptical about it. The electoral success of Jörg Haider in Austria has shown how effectively populist politicians can exploit fears of opening to the east. Enlargement now seems likely to be a contentious issue in the German parliamentary elections, and perhaps also the French presidential election, both due in 2002. And what placates German and French voters may enrage Polish and Czech ones. Making the case for enlargement is a challenge to democratic leadership in the whole of Europe.

With his recent suggestion that Germany should have a referendum on enlargement, Günter Verheugen, the responsible European Commissioner, has posed the right question and given the wrong answer. The question is: Why, more than a decade since the fall of the Berlin Wall, have the political leaders of western Europe made so little serious effort to convince their peoples that extending the European Union to the newly liberated states of central, south-eastern and eastern Europe is in those peoples' own vital, long-term interest? And how, belatedly, can that now be done?

However, referendums are not the answer. We say this not because we don't trust the people, but because referendums in representative democracies are instruments to be used very sparingly, on issues that directly affect the very core of national interests, institutions and identity. Enlargement is not such an issue. Yes, it is vitally important for all our futures. But it does not directly impinge upon the vital interests of any EU nation.

Contrary to what the scaremongers suggest, it will not result in a vast flood of immigrants, or the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, let alone any significant further loss of national sovereignty. Populists dramatise the short-term costs of enlargement, while ignoring the long-term benefits. The task for democratic leaders is to dramatise the long-term benefits, while placing the short-term costs in an honest but accurate perspective. We have nothing to fear from the facts.

Public opinion on either side of the EU's eastern frontier has different concerns, but the two public opinions are also communicating vessels. To the west, people fear immigration, job losses, and having to pay for enlargement. The fear of "instability" to Germany's east - which nourished German support for EU enlargement - has been reduced by Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining NATO. Meanwhile, east European markets are so open for west European exporters and investors that the western businessman can selfishly say "why do I need enlargement?"

To the east, there is disillusionment with what people see as the broken promises of west European leaders. There is dismay at the bureaucratic rigidity and gigantism of the 80,000 pages of EU rules which they have to adopt before being let in to the club. They rightly consider many of these to be unduly protective of special interests inside the EU and harmful to a free-market economy. There are broader concerns about giving up some of the sovereignty these countries have only recently regained. And they fear that the price for entering Schengenland will be that they must make their own eastern frontiers fortified and impenetrable.

If not a referendum, then what is to be done? First and foremost, the EU must, at the latest during the Swedish presidency in 2001, set a definite timetable for the first round of enlargement. The fact that there was a binding timetable was one of the main reasons why Economic and Monetary Union happened in January 1999. It concentrated minds like nothing else. Inspired by the recollection of EMU's two target dates, we suggest that EU leaders say: "The first round of enlargement will happen, if all the conditions can be met in time, on 1 January 2003. It must happen by 1 January 2005." And that first round must include Poland, the most difficult but also the most important country in the leading group of applicants.

Second, the European Council in Nice, this December, must, at long last, set a clear course for making those institutional reforms without which an EU of 20 and more member states will simply no longer function. Beside reforms of Council and Commission, there is a leap of principle to be made here. The Nice Council should endorse the principle of "enhanced co-operation", so long as such co-operation is flexible, transparent and open to all member states who wish to join.

Third, the EU should consider, in discussion with all European countries who wish to join it, whether there are not parts of its now complex structures of co-operation that some of them could join before becoming full members of the EU. One example would be areas of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Another could be early accession to the planned European Charter of Fundamental Rights. It would surely be fitting if the preamble to that Charter made explicit reference to the ideals of the central European revolutions of 1989.

Fourth, we have to consider how a European perspective can be made real to the politicians and publics in the remoter parts of south-eastern and eastern Europe. Ironically, west European troops and civil servants are actually more present in Bosnia and Kosovo than they are in Bohemia or Silesia. The stepping stones from military protectorate to political integration have to be thought out - and then spelled out. The European Union's recent message to the people of Serbia and the other states of former Yugoslavia is a good beginning, but more needs to be done. And what have we to offer Ukraine, and other countries to the east?

Finally, and more important than any of these individual steps, the leaders of Europe have to take up the challenge and really start making the case for the larger Europe to their publics, east and west of the velvet curtain. They need to be as serious about this as they have always been about the euro. A weak euro may be a blessing in disguise. A weak Europe is an unmitigated curse. But who among our leaders will take up this challenge?

Timothy Garton Ash is a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford and of the Hoover Institution, Stanford; Michael Mertes is deputy editor-in-chief of the 'Rheinischer Merkur', Bonn; Jacques Rupnik is director of research at the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris; Aleksander Smolar is president of the Stefan Batory Foundation, Warsaw, and research fellow, CNRS, Paris