Expansion no longer tops the EU agenda as growing pains, other issues take precedence

The European Union has a lot longer row to hoe than it used to. The organization is struggling to digest its recent, hefty intake of 10 new states last May – in a «big bang» more than twice the size of any previous expansion – which is having major implications on its sense of unity, its budget, and its ability to translate economic to political clout on an uncompromising world stage. Along with growth comes divergence. One striking indication was a report this week by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, on the gap between the EU’s richest and poorest regions. The richest, Inner London, registered more than 10 times the income of the poorest, in eastern Poland. Most of the poorest regions, unsurprisingly, were in the new member states – notably in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and eastern parts of Germany. Two Greek regions, western Greece and eastern Macedonia and Thrace, pulled up the rear in the 15 old states. Such divergencies will take decades to reduce, will probably never vanish, and could even grow wider. Growth comparisons between the EU and the US are frequent, and frequently misleading, but here is a striking one: Whereas the US took some 170 years (1789 to 1959) to grow from an original 13 states to its current (final?) 50 – growth of a little under a factor of four – it took the EU less than 50 years (1957 to 2004) to more than quadruple, from an original six members of the old European Economic Community to some 25 today. When Greece joined, 24 years ago, it was one of 10. Now there are 24 others competing for attention, status and funds, while passing the new constitution looms as the next huge hurdle. There’s no rest for the weary – or the sated. Stickier wicket Plenty of talk persists of still more members to come. Ukraine is only the latest to join the game. The EU has given some mixed signals over future memberships, while struggling outsiders naturally flirt with a union of states with stable economies, a political essence and now even something of a history behind it. Nonetheless, apart from the two states at the tail end of the eastern European sweep – Romania and Bulgaria, both negotiating to join in 2007 – the door is suddenly a lot smaller than it used to be. Many believe the EU is reaching its natural upper limit in terms of size and diversity (although the much looser Council of Europe now numbers 46). The EU may have signaled a change of priority with its new Commission under Jose Manuel Barroso. The hardworking enlargement commissioner of the past five years, Gunther Verheugen of Germany, who oversaw 2004’s major expansion, is now a Commission vice president holding the key Industry portfolio. His replacement, Olli Rehn of Finland, is a newcomer and its youngest member at just 42. He has academic work (including an Oxford doctorate) and some economic advising behind him, but is still relatively untested for the sensitive job of giving hope to countries while also keeping them at arm’s length. This week Rehn visited Serbia-Montenegro and Kosovo, where the EU, along with NATO and the UN, has been heavily involved with reconstruction and stabilization efforts since the 1990s wars. EU membership is not exactly up for discussion; the EU refuses to make any concrete steps with Serbia until it hands over designated war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to the UN tribunal, while Kosovo is not even a state. Still in international limbo after years of UN administration and NATO peacekeeping, Kosovo remains a complicated case (Serbia considers the region its heartland, but most of its inhabitants are ethnic Albanian). The International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, says that the province could backtrack into bloodshed if its status is not resolved. Some, like financier George Soros, believe independence is inevitable. Kosovo will be on the agenda for talks with US President George Bush on his European fence-mending trip in February. Croatia is in a brighter spot as it tries to follow its neighbor Slovenia into EU membership. But hopes that Slovenian accession will be the thin edge of a Balkan wedge into Europe are probably far-fetched. Even for Croatia, which is now an official candidate, membership is a long way off. Its 2001 Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU finally comes into force next Tuesday, February 1; in mid-March, it will open accession negotiations, but there is no specified end-date. Croatia’s candidacy has been as low key as Turkey’s has been controversial. An EU associate member seemingly forever (since 1963), Turkey was finally, in December, given the OK by the European Council to open negotiations in October 2005, but subject to strict scrutiny both formal and informal. Uniquely among EU hopefuls, its prospective membership has opened up domestic political rifts in Germany and especially France, where some have called for a referendum on Turkish membership if and when the time comes – well over a decade away. … And another The EU was caught off guard this week when newly elected Ukranian President Viktor Yushchenko announced his country’s aim of future membership. Was this grand gesture an empty one? How far can one charismatic and semitragic figure – who this week toured Strasbourg, Davos and Brussels – carry his country? Surely Ukraine’s careful balancing act between east and west will not vanish (his first major act in office was a trip to Moscow). But the country has far to go to meet European standards, even for associate EU membership, on human rights, rule of law and market economy; and just imagine the howl of protests from Ankara should anyone try to slip Kiev into the line before Turkey, which has been knocking on the door, not for a few days, but for 40 years. FYROM, the perennially awkward acronym by which not just Greece but, formally, the UN and EU also address «Macedonia,» can’t be considered a realistic candidate until it gets its name issue settled with Greece, which would veto any bid by its northern neighbor to join NATO or the EU. Anyone for Albania? Long Europe’s weakest economy if not hopeless case, the country has been pumped with well over 1 billion euros in EU funds over the past decade, and the Union’s Neighborhood Program is an imaginative new scheme to help the country cooperate with neighbors (Greece, Italy) on nuts-and-bolts items like infrastructure and small-business support. It has also signed a Stabilization and Association agreement, a first step down the pipeline to membership. It’s a long, long pipe. For all its continuing weakness in international politics, the EU’s trade muscle, development schemes and single-currency area remain alluring for outsiders looking in. A heavy challenge faces both sides: for struggling states to modernize, for the EU to work up an appetite for still more. Five or more years from now, an EU of no more than 27 may be the reality.