If 'Old Europe' is so bad, why do the Poles want to join?

European states subjugated for half a century will re-join Europe. Understand the magnitude of this
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The Independent Online

It was pure coincidence no doubt that the Chancellor yesterday announced the results of his five tests for Britain joining the euro just as the final votes were counted for the Polish referendum on joining the European Union. But, coincidence or not, it is hard to take the one without the other.

Even at the most basic level, the enlargement of the Union from 15 to 25 members has direct repercussions on the euro question. Under the terms of accession, each applicant country must agree to adopt the euro as soon as it meets the convergence criteria. As the UK Treasury's papers released yesterday accept, that means that the euro area could have at least 22 members within a decade. Where Britain today is one of three hold-outs against 11 members, in a few years time we could find ourselves as the only non-members of a euro club of 20.

But in a much wider sense, Poland's approval of membership is part of an enlargement of the Union that will change the whole context in which discussions on Europe take place. Not that the British Chancellor made any mention of Poland in his declaration of intent yesterday. To listen to Gordon Brown, you would think that the EU was a fixed entity around which Britain could circle at will, while we make up our mind whether to participate and the Europeans have to make up their mind whether to reform in order to make themselves worthy recipients of our suit.

But the EU isn't a fixed entity, of course, and never has been. It might suit the Eurosceptics to see it as an institution speeding down a straight line of ever greater integration and federalism. But the Union has always been the stuttering engine of political and economic development.

That is even more true today. It is difficult enough to determine just what the Union amounts to in the confusions of slowing economic growth and rows over Iraq, never mind thinking what it will be tomorrow, when the Union is half as large again and has a new constitution, while world trade and economic growth could be following quite different paths.

And yet the British approach every decision with a predetermined view based not what is actually happening in Europe but on whether we want it to be a success or already regard it as a failure. The Eurosceptics look to German deflation and Continental rates of unemployment and say that the euro has been a disaster, as if these factors would not have been true even if there had been no euro. The euro-enthusiasts look to the relative ease with which the currency has been introduced and the relatively higher rates of inward investment on the Continent compared to Britain, and say we are missing out.

Gordon Brown was at it again in his statement to the House of Commons, and Michael Howard, the Shadow Chancellor, in his reply yesterday. It would not have been right, said the Chancellor, to have gone in in 1999 because of the divergence in interest rates and other economic factors, as if it would have made no difference to these if we had joined with the full weight of our economy. It would not be right to join now, he declared, because we had yet to achieve the necessary convergence and flexibility, as if everything we did was a positive and everything that was going on in Continental Europe was static.

We will never get our relations with the rest of Europe - or, more important, our part in it - right if we go on like this. At its heart, the European Union has been a political venture of truly astonishing vision and success. Its founders after the Second World War had wanted it to end a century of national rivalry and bloody war and achieve economic growth with social cohesion. On both accounts it has fulfilled all its expectations and more.

The point about enlargement is that it does the same again after the end of the Cold War. A year from now, the majority of the European states subjugated for half a century within the Soviet axis will join the Western one. You have to have confined your life to the passageways of the palace of Westminster not to understand the magnitude of this achievement, and the smallness of currency question as part of it. And you have to be as blinkered as the front benches of the two main parties in the British Parliament not to grasp the reach to the future being acted out across Eastern Europe.

The choice before the electorate of Poland over the weekend, as in the other applicant states, was not between Europe and America, or "Old Europe" and "New Europe", or any other of the abstractions arising from the Iraq war. It was between signing up to a European market and a European ideal or voting for the politicians of the Self-Defence and League of Polish Families parties, who wanted to preserve Poland as a separate nation state protecting its farmers and its traditional industries. More than three quarters of those who voted put their mark on their former. In the other states that have completed their referendums, the majority has been even greater.

Of themselves, the new members do not have the weight to change the course of the European economy, although they do have the population to force political change. They certainly don't have the kind of growth rates to drag the faltering economies of Germany and France back to expansion. Just the opposite: in Poland's case, growth has been stymied by Germany's problems. But they do have the potential to provide new political blood and new markets to keep Europe on the move.

In that sense, the European Union decision on expansion is a mirror image to the British decision on the euro. If the EU had reduced the question of enlargement to a considered risk assessment, making its invitation to membership subject to tests of convergence and flexibility, it would never have reached the point of signature at all.

For by any account this is a pretty abysmal moment to consider enlargement. With unemployment through most of Europe high and Germany teetering on the brink of recession, the economics are miserable. And the politics are even worse after the divisions opened up by the Iraq war. Talk of common foreign or security policies may terrify the Tories, but they are mere pie-in-the-sky to everyone else in Europe. Nor do the deliberations of Giscard d'Estaing on a future constitution for the Union amount to much more than a collection of fudged compromises between irreconcilable differences among the member states.

But then Europe has always been thus. It has blundered along through a series of crises from the 1973 oil recession to German reunification, from economic acts such as the single market to political leaps such as Greek and Portuguese and British enlargement, meeting very few criteria other than an innate reach towards a better more united future. At each point the pessimists say that the contrary pulls will force the train off the track, while the optimists have said it will grow and prosper like the United States of America. And somehow the train keeps chugging on.

The latest stage is no different. The pessimists argue that the strain within Europe of trying to absorb such huge backward economies as Poland will break the Union, just as the impossibility of trying to make low-inflation advanced economies compatible with high-inflation less advanced economies will bust the euro apart.

But whether they like it or not, the train is moving forwards towards enlargement of the Union and enlargement of the eurozone. We can debate until the next century about the destination and the branch lines, but if we worry about the train stalling, or even worse tipping off the rails, then we'd better get on board and start stoking.