Pains of enlargement

BRUSSELS – The enlarged European Union is experiencing growing pains as newcomers defend their interests with increasing assertiveness, but the bloc is far from paralysis. Poland, the largest newcomer, blocked the start of talks with Russia on a new cooperation pact in November and Cyprus has used its membership to obstruct membership talks with Turkey. But the EU’s legislative machine is mostly lumbering on as normal, slowed only by mammoth extra translation requirements. The EU’s 2004 expansion to take in 10, mostly ex-communist countries has inevitably complicated the work of Brussels institutions, irking some of the 15 «old» member states and highlighting the need for institutional reform. «EU decision making has become more difficult because there are now obviously more interests around the table that have to be accommodated,» said Hugo Brady, an analyst at the Center for European Reform (CER) in London. Among the biggest differences between old and new members are attitudes to Russia, with the newcomers generally deeply distrustful of the intentions of Moscow, which controlled Central and Eastern Europe until the fall of communism in 1989. «For historical reasons, we have a different set of psychological-political interests compared with those in the old member states,» said Wilhelm Schoenfelder, Germany’s ambassador to the EU. Gone is the cozy informal atmosphere which helped to craft political compromises among the original six and even the 15 members who had joined by 1995, a diplomat from an «old» EU state said. «The process is more formalized,» he said. Less restraint Ministers or envoys from the 25 nations, flanked by aides and surrounded by interpreters for 20 official languages, can barely see one another around a huge rectangular table when they negotiate new laws or joint positions. Those negotiations have been made less predictable by the policy twists of some newcomers with weak governments, fluid party systems and rising populist movements. «The first year (after enlargement) went quite well with no major hiccups. Now it seems there is less restraint, exemplified by the Polish approach to the EU-Russia negotiations. We have a bit of a problem,» a senior Commission official told Reuters. «But the mood is not yet exasperation,» he added. The entry of Bulgaria and Romania yesterday is unlikely to exacerbate decision-making problems as the Balkan duo look keen to play a constructive role, at least initially, grateful to have been accepted into the bloc, another EU diplomat said. Since the last batch joined, the EU has managed to agree on a long-term budget for 2007-2013, a plan to open up the service sector to cross-border competition, a bill on controlling toxic chemicals and a host of smaller decisions. They also agreed on a constitution, designed to streamline institutions to cope with enlargement. Ironically, voters in two old member states – France and the Netherlands – rejected the charter, partly out of disgruntlement with the bloc’s expansion. Analysts believe decision making will improve as the new members master Brussels’s deal-making culture, provided the bloc can agree to a new treaty to replace the failed constitution. Newcomers must learn that «if you use your veto over an agreement that took a long time to reach, you will lose some political capital and when you next need it, you may not receive the support,» said CER’s Brady. In November, the Czech Republic blocked plans to raise the EU tax on beer, its national beverage. But most obstruction has come from Poland, which has not only vetoed the Russia talks, demanding that Moscow lift its embargo on Polish meat imports, but also tried unsuccessfully to block a sugar subsidy reform, a value-added tax reform and a deal on transferring prisoners to their home countries. «It is a very disappointing approach by Poland. Very disappointing. We can no longer accept that one member state stops 24 others,» EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini said. Poland, where the Euro-skeptical twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski are president and prime minister, counters that «old» member states also block EU deals, but somehow they are not branded as «awkward» as Warsaw is. The constitution would have made it harder for a single country or a small minority to block decisions. Justice and home affairs measures, for example, would have been adopted by a qualified majority rather than unanimity. This month, with 27 states around the table, incoming EU president Germany plans to revive talks on how to achieve that.

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