As the European Union prepares to welcome 10 new members, there are fears of the emergence of a new "wall" and the renewal of hostilities between the continent's east and west.
ON April 16, European leaders met in the Greek capital, Athens, in a historic summit to formalise the largest expansion of the European Union (E.U.). Ten new members - Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia - will join the E.U. in May 2004, taking the total number of member-states to 25.
Eight of the new members are from the former communist bloc in eastern Europe. The treaty was signed in the shadows of the ancient Acropolis, with signatories such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis hailing the occasion as the end of the long and tortuous divide between east and west Europe. "It is only today that the Berlin Wall has truly fallen," remarked Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
The war in Iraq, however, cast an overwhelming shadow over the historic meeting. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan came to the conference (as did Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov) and discussed the Iraq situation with various leaders. At the end of the summit, a declaration was issued, emphasising the role of the U.N. in the reconstruction of Iraq. The declaration signified that E.U. members had agreed to bridge some of the serious differences generated within the Union by the Iraq crisis. France and Germany had opposed the war strongly, while Spain and the United Kingdom backed the United States-led invasion.
Besides dividing the E.U., the Iraq issue threatened to disrupt the planned accession of the eastern European states. The complications arose because of two public letters signed by these countries, supporting the American position on Iraq. The first letter appeared in January and was signed, among others, by the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. The second letter was signed by 10 other east European countries, including Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia, all candidates for E.U. membership.
While U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was naturally pleased with the support offered by "New Europe", in contrast to the opposition of "Old Europe", French President Jacques Chirac voiced his strong displeasure. He described the signatories as being badly behaved, and called their action "dangerous", adding that the existing members were yet to ratify the E.U.'s decision to accept 10 new states. These countries "had missed a great opportunity to shut up", Chirac said. He was particularly severe on Bulgaria and Romania, which are due for full membership only in 2007, and said that their position was already very delicate.
Chirac's outburst provoked angry reactions. Romanian President Ion Iliescu called the French President's remarks "inappropriate". Polish Deputy Foreign Minister declared, "Poland has a right to decide what is in it's own good and France should consider it with respect." Slovak Foreign Minister Edward Kukan said: "I do not comprehend why Mr. Chirac is not criticising Italy, Spain or Portugal. After all, they said exactly the same."
The media echoed the criticism by the east European leaders. The Czech newspaper Hospodarske Noviny, wrote: "The French President is without doubt walking on thin ice when he tries to base European foreign policy on the principle of anti-Americanism. His theory does not even have the support of the majority of E.U. member-states." The Latvian newspaper Neatkariga Rita Avize directly addressed the French President: "All right, Monsieur Chirac. Perhaps we are poor. Perhaps we were not raised properly. We do not know about fine wine and the various directions of avant-garde art. But we do not repay those who have helped us and who continue to help us with ingratitude."
Although the E.U. membership for countries from east Europe is being hailed as the end of divisions in the European continent, are new divisions emerging? While the Union integrates within its sphere, is it having a disintegrating effect in other parts? The realities on the ground on the eastern borders of an expanding E.U. are providing fuel for such doubts.
These questions are further related to the issue of the E.U.'s expansion in future. The expansion planned for 2004 is the largest in the history of the E.U., the accession will add 75 million people to the Union. There is a growing demand within the E.U. to define its boundaries in line with its criteria for admissions. These criteria, particularly the economic ones, are tough, and candidate-countries have had to wait for years for full membership.
European Commission President Romano Prodi declared recently that the boundaries of the Union were now becoming clear. Apart from Bulgaria and Romania, Turkey too is a candidate-country. Prodi has pronounced that countries such as Ukraine would remain outside the E.U.
For some countries from the former Soviet bloc in east Europe, the E.U.'s expansion signifies the arrival of a new giant entity on their borders. The E.U. has already made its presence felt painfully among these new neighbours. It has formulated an "Initiative for new neighbours", in order to increase trans-border cooperation and advance relations on the basis of "common political and economic values". However, changes in the relations among former communist neighbours in eastern Europe testify to a new reality that is being determined by the E.U. The relations between Poland, which will enter the E.U., and Ukraine, which remains outside, illustrate the problems involved.
Ever since Poland began negotiations for entry into the E.U., it has tightened controls on its borders with Ukraine to check illegal immigration, in an attempt to conform with the stringent E.U. rules on immigration. A full-fledged system of visas will come into effect from July this year. Tighter controls on the Polish border have meant hardships for Ukrainians, who have had easy cross-border access. Facility in movement has allowed informal trade, a source of income for many people in Ukraine, to flourish in the border areas. Poland shares a 1,200-km long border with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. A three-lakh-strong Ukrainian minority and about two lakh people of Belarus origin live in eastern Poland. With tighter border controls, family visits too would be greatly affected.
Resentment is bound to rise in these areas of eastern Europe because ever since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, people of central and eastern Europe have enjoyed substantial freedom of movement in these areas.
Other east European countries waiting to join the E.U. - Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria - introduced visas for Ukrainians last year. After the introduction of visas, the number of Ukrainians in Slovakia fell by four times. A Slovak or Bulgarian visa costs the equivalent of $20, which is almost one-third the average salary in Ukraine.
The relations between Belarus and the E.U. are even more difficult. In a move against the authoritarian regime in Belarus, the E.U. has imposed a series of sanctions on the country since November 2002, which include a ban on visas for E.U. countries.
The tightening of border controls, the emergence of a new European Union "wall" facing neighbours to the east, has provoked fears of a renewal of old hostilities between the East and the West. In the area lying between the two giants of the European continent - the E.U. and the Russian Federation - there is a growing feeling that countries such as Ukraine and Belarus would slide back under Russian influence as a reaction to the E.U.'s expansion.
A proposal for a Russia-Belarus Union already exists, since the time of the war in Kosovo. Russia is also the dominant economic force in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the grouping of ex-Soviet republics, which includes Ukraine and Belarus. While Ukraine's economy remains fragile and suffers from serious structural imbalances, the measure of Russia's dominance may be gauged from the fact that it's current resources include 50 per cent of the gold and copper, and almost all the nickel and diamond of the former Soviet Union.
Its oil resources are estimated to be the second largest after Saudi Arabia. Russia provides the dominant share of exports to the CIS countries, while its imports represent more than 40 per cent of the total volume.