Two worlds meet in the expanded EU

Ten new countries - eight former Soviet satellites - join Saturday the EU, the world's largest trading bloc.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sundered for decades by war and ideology, Europe will make itself whole again Saturday, as the European Union takes in 10 new members, most of them former Soviet satellites.

The historic expansion gathers 450 million people under Europe's 12-starred blue flag and sweeps aside the last vestiges of the cold war. It also forms a union of startling disparities: The new members are twice as poor as the old.

When the new entrants look West, they see a future they hope will be brightened by economic prosperity. But when the current members look East, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, they see the spread of democratic values they hope will underpin continental peace.

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The EU boasts that it is the world's largest trading bloc. But its most important exports, some argue, are intangible.

"It's much more than a question of commercial values," says John Palmer, political director of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels think tank. "Europeanization is fundamentally about political and human values, and the changes they have wrought are as profound as the economic changes" in new member states.

Along with a functioning market economy, applicants for EU membership must be able to boast a pluralist democratic political system and full respect for human rights, before they can start negotiations.

The results are felt, even if they are taken for granted, on the streets of Budapest, says Andras Balogh, a foreign policy adviser to Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy. "The public has forgotten the question of values," Mr. Balogh says. "The pluralistic system is so taken for granted now, and European values are shared in Hungary."

The EU's human rights standards have sparked reform in other countries hoping to join. Further afield, as Europe seeks to influence and modernize a Muslim country bordering Iraq, Turkey is quietly and slowly reforming itself in the hope of one day meeting EU conditions.

Turkey may be cleaning up its human rights record "for reasons of prosperity and economic progress, but they are still making reforms and genuine changes," says Maggie Nicholson, an official with the Council of Europe who has worked with judges in Turkey to reform the judiciary there.

Over the past two years the Turkish Parliament has passed wide-ranging reforms - banning the death penalty, allowing Kurds to broadcast in their own language, and toughening measures against torture. Though they have not all been implemented, "they have been driven through largely on the prospect of membership in the European Union," says Mr. Palmer.

"That is the motor force for progress ... and potentially the same could happen elsewhere."

The prospect of more aid and trade could tempt even the most vilified of international pariahs to rethink his policies, EU officials hope: Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi was in Brussels this week discussing his country's prospects of joining an association with the EU. The price would be a radical overhaul of Libya's one-party state and an end to human rights abuses.

Closer to home, the EU's emphasis on human rights has paid off in Eastern European countries, where violent ethnic conflicts threatened to break out as the yoke of communism fell away. "One of the advantages of expansion is that the value system it brings includes equal rights for minorities," says Balogh.

The advantages of having peaceful and pluralistic neighbors, rather than unstable and potentially violent ones, was made plain by events in the Balkans and continues to drive EU thinking. "It is in our political interest," French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday, "to have a stable, modern, and democratic Turkey, ready to share our aims and values, that would act as a model for its neighbors."

Many continental Europeans, however, are hostile to the idea of inviting Turkey - a poor Muslim country stretching deep into the Middle East - into the EU, and their leaders have never spelled out how much further the EU might want, or be able, to expand.

Romania and Bulgaria are expected to be ready to join in 2007, and Croatia is making a serious bid. Macedonia and Albania have set their sights on membership within a decade. Serbia is still far from developing a functioning market economy, and further east, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus are stuck in post-Soviet political and economic limbo.

Already the gap is wide between some of the new entrants and existing members. The average per capita income for incoming members is less than half that of the old. Industrial wages in Slovakia are one-sixth those of not-so-distant Germany. That has led some European citizens to wonder whether their union can digest such glaring differences and retain a common identity across 450 million people.

Considering that Saturday's accession will consign Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin's Yalta deal to the dustbin of history, the mood in Europe is remarkably subdued.

Indeed, only 48 percent of citizens in current EU states think their country's membership in the organization is a good thing, according to a recent poll for the European Commission.

That is largely because few Europeans feel ownership of the EU, analysts say. It is only experts, for example, who can say which EU institution does exactly what.

At the same time, says Palmer, "There are a set of sobering challenges the 25 [EU members] have to face that have reduced the celebrations" of EU expansion, ranging from attempts to agree on a European-wide constitution, through sluggish economic growth, to differences over how to deal with the United States.

"These problems could slow the momentum" toward deeper EU integration, Palmer says. "I don't see the process going into reverse, but the forward momentum could be called into question."

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