NATO expansion was a first step in bringing East-Central Europe into the European fold. Equally vital is integration into the European Union (EU). On July 16 the European Commission discusses which applicants merit accession. It has recommended Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, and Poland to top the list.
Though a decision will be made at December's Luxembourg summit, any new members would not be admitted until at least 2000. For Euroskeptics, the failure of June's discordant Amsterdam summit to finalize questions about voting rules and institutional reforms makes enlargement premature. Others argue that even top-tier East-Central European states still lag in political and market reforms and would strain the EU budget.
Despite such concerns, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, and Poland clearly merit admission.
A Freedom House study, "Nations in Transit 1997," which assessed economic and political progress in the 25 nations of East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, found that the countries under consideration have made the most dramatic progress in establishing functioning market economies, democratic governance, and civil society, and in improving public administration and competitiveness in a single-market system. They ranked in or near the top five in gross domestic product (GDP) growth and privatization, and had the highest percentage of GDP in private hands.They are in comparatively better shape than Ireland was when admitted in 1973, or Greece in 1981. As to cost, the European Commission estimates that absorbing four or five applicants will not increase the budget ceiling of 1.27 percent of the EU's GDP.
Opening the doors to these new democracies will enhance domestic reform and geostrategic stability. Indeed, what made wrenching restructuring palpable to hard-pressed populations weaned on communist paternalism was the promise of eventual integration into Europe's economic and security structures. Slamming the door now would imperil years of hard-won progress.
Eastern expansion sends other important signals. Estonia's nomination tells Russia the West will not concede the Baltics to Moscow's sphere of influence, a significant point given their omission from NATO's first-round enlargement. Though Amsterdam summiters failed to absorb Europe's defense organization, the WEU, into the EU, new members will be integrated into the EU's common security and foreign policy. Moreover, the nominees show other applicants - Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Turkey - and reform-averse states, like Albania and Croatia, the wide-ranging reforms needed to join the new Europe.
Prickly issues remain. Current members squabble over the purviews of a supranational organization versus national prerogatives. And who pays for enlargement? Poorer members see the new entrants as a threat to funds earmarked for them by the EU for regional and social-policy subsidies. For the recommended states, communism's legacy and rapid transformation of command economies left poverty, weakened social-welfare systems, corruption, and environmental pollution.
Europeans must recognize that admitting these five market democracies, and leaving the door open for others, is a necessary complement to NATO expansion, a key to durable post-Soviet stability. Rewarding societies that sacrificed so much to replace tyranny is an enormous stride toward a united Europe. East-Central Europe's entrants can provide new impetus for European growth and dynamism in the global marketplace.
* George Zarycky analyzes Central Europe for Freedom House and contributed to "Nations in Transit 1997," (Transaction Books).