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EC Girds Itself for Inevitable Expansion

The debate within the European Community no longer turns on whether to 'deepen' or 'widen.' Now members look for ways to do both at once as 20 countries seek entry - last in a four-part series.

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Views of expansion The views of present members will largely determine the pace of Community expansion. It is not an issue that fosters unanimity. Germany, Italy, and Great Britain are strong supporters of opening the EC to Eastern Europe, though not always for the same reasons. Germany and Italy, the EC countries geographically farthest east, equate enlargement with European stability. Both countries have had recent experiences with East European refugees streaming over their borders. Instability in Eastern Europe means instability for them. Both countries also already have significant investments in Eastern Europe, and see enlargement as a two-way boon. Britain also supports admitting Eastern Europe, criticizing any expression of doubt or caution as reflective of a rich man's club too focused on its own affairs. But the Britain that opposes any moves towards a "federal" Community is also suspected by its partners of pushing enlargement as a way of rendering a supranational Europe less likely. France has been the strongest opponent of enlargement since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The French feared that expansion to the east would result in a German-dominated Community, replacing the EC's traditional Paris-Bonn axis of power and initiative. The French also preferred first creating a "deeper" union in the image of France's highly centralized political system - thus President Francois Mitterrand's comment early this year that it would be "dozens and dozens of years" before Eastern Europe joined. That point of view has begun to evolve over recent months, however. One reason is that the French are beginning to see enlargement as a means of diluting Germany's growing power. One example is France's very keen desire to see a single European currency by 1997. Last week's hike in German interest rates, almost certain to force another painful increase in French rates, will only increase France's desire for a currency managed by a European central bank and for a Europe out from under the German Bundesbank.

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Economic standards But a single currency in 1997 - the earliest date possible - can only happen if a majority of EC members meet the strict economic criteria set at Maastricht by 1996. Thus France's recent warming to membership of EFTA countries, the most likely candidates to meet those criteria. Mr. Mitterrand is even said to have told Swedish leaders last week that a fast track might get them in the EC by 1993 or 1994, although the Swedes say that for now they prefer a 1995 entry. As for the Community's poorer members, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland figure they have perhaps a decade before other "poor" countries gain entrance. But they will remain cautious over economic moves that would damage their own growth or reduce their own access to Community development funds. "Certainly we want to encourage Eastern Europe in its economic and democratic development," says a Spanish official in Madrid, "but we can't forget that many of our own people live at levels considerably below the Community average." The enlargement issue on the horizon is one reason Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez Marquez fought so hard in Maastricht for a commitment to higher funding for the EC's poorer members. Money is an important reason the EFTA countries are unlikely to confront many objections to their membership - they will be net payers into the system. Beyond the EFTA countries, however, "People will start realizing that enlargement is going to be very expensive, and that's going to upset carts across the EC," says Mr. Moreau-Defarges. "Germany wants to be heard saying 'yes' to the East, but [the Germans] don't say they're ready to pay."

Questions remaining Yet ultimately more threatening than money issues to the Community's effectiveness, cohesion, and perhaps even its existence, will be the prickly institutional questions that determine how the Community works, how it meets its members' needs, and how it operates in the world. Leaders must determine how to keep the Community democratic and maintain its effectiveness as it expands. "Cultural and historical differences are going to intensify, not lessen," says Moreau-Defarges. "It's one thing to operate at 12 or 15, but it's another thing to do it as a Europe of 25 to 30." "The number of small members is going to grow," he says, adding that the Community has traditionally been dominated by its larger members. Leaders will have to address smaller members' concerns over representation.