Europe's Jeffersonian Moment

The European Union takes a historic step into the unknown Saturday, adding 10 new members, most of them former Communist countries.

It's the biggest EU expansion by far, and is so fraught with doubt among Europeans that many are hard pressed to remember why this was a good idea.

The present union, made up of 15 nations, has a difficult time as it is. It can't agree on foreign policy (Iraq). Its two most powerful members (Germany and France) can't keep their budgets within the EU's fiscal rules. The efficiencies expected from a single currency and looser border controls have not closed the EU's productivity gap with the US.

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Admission of new members from the east just adds problems, such as more porous borders, which could look appealing to terrorists. The list of entrants (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta, and Greek Cyprus) conjures up the image of an EU seizing up with new policy worries and more languages.

And the new members wonder whether, as happened in Germany, their goods will be supplanted by products from the west after reunification. Western Europeans, meanwhile, fear a storm of poor immigrants (this, despite temporary restrictions); according to a European Commission's opinion poll, only 47 percent of people in the EU favor enlargement.

All this might seem reason enough to question the wisdom of widening the EU tent. But America's founding fathers could just as easily have ticked off arguments to dissuade them from uniting 13 colonies in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. In some ways, the EU goal is no less sweeping.

The union has admitted poorer countries before, ones that emerged from harsh rule (Spain and Greece). When doubts flood in, it's worth remembering why a body that binds Europeans more closely together is worthy in itself. At their 1995 summit, EU leaders endorsed enlargement as a "political necessity and a historic opportunity." Their reasons were idealistic, coming just after the cold war. It was a time to spread democracy and free markets with those who had been suppressed, and bring greater stability and security to more of Europe.

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