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Europe grows larger, and farther apart

This week, in a historic expansion, the EU is set to invite in 10 new members.

By Arie FarnamSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 10, 2002


It's a long way from this small eastern mountain town to London, Paris, or Berlin.

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Unemployment here has swelled to about 40 percent, and the town's residents are weary after years of belt-tightening as formerly communist Slovakia has struggled to build a capitalist system.

"We have become a forgotten backwater, like a poor cousin tagging along behind Europe," says Pavel Riska, a carpenter who earns just $120 per month - $30 over the country's poverty line. "We like to think of ourselves as European, but we have very little in common with the rich people in Western Europe."

Yet at a summit in Copenhagen this week, the European Union will push the eastern borders of Europe all the way to Russia. Slovakia is set to become one of 10 new members of the European Union, the so-called "rich countries' club."

Many Slovaks see EU membership as a quick cure for the country's economic troubles, but analysts say they are in for a big disappointment. In fact, they may experience yet another wave of social displacement after joining the EU, because of financial disadvantages legislated for the new countries.

"The Slovak people have an overly rosy picture of what will happen after we join the EU," says Vladimir Bilcik, an economist at the Slovak Foreign Policy Association. "There is this myth that we will suddenly claim our rightful place as a rich country in the heart of Europe, but that will take years and expectations are bound to be disappointed."

In fact, things will probably get worse before they get better. "Food prices will increase by at least 20 percent, and that will cause some significant social fallout," says Martin Valentovic of the Slovak Center for Economic and Social Analysis MESA 10. "Salaries will rise eventually, but that will take much longer, perhaps 30 years, and foreign investors will only come to Slovakia if we offer cheap labor."

The EU's leaders often describe the expansion as a landmark, strategic unification that will spread peace and prosperity throughout the continent. But at least initially the new union will be economically lopsided, creating integration difficulties.

The current 15 member states will contain 95 percent of EU wealth, while all 10 new countries together will have just 5 percent. Moreover, the conditions laid down in accession agreements promise to exacerbate that inequality, at least in the short term. Many in both new and old states voice concern that the result will be a union sharply divided between rich and poor.

"It is taken for granted that we must join the EU, but it isn't going to be easy," says Fedor Gal, a prominent Slovak politician and leader of the pre-1989 anticommunist dissident movement. "People in Slovakia are very aware that the next few years will define where the line between the prosperous West and the poor East will be - and the big question is what side of that line Slovakia will be on."

At present, the accession states - including Slovakia's immediate neighbors the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, plus three Baltic nations, a couple of Mediterranean islands, and the western Balkan enclave of Slovenia - occupy a gray zone between third-world destitution and first-world abundance.