It's the European version of the "giant sucking sound." Just as Ross Perot warned that free trade with Mexico would drive jobs out of the United States, many comfortable Western Europeans fear opening up to economically less fortunate Easterners.
And yet, just as Americans finally found it in their interest to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Western Europeans are also moving, hesitantly, toward enlarging the European Union (EU).
The first big step came this weekend at a summit of European leaders in Luxembourg. Five former communist countries - Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Estonia - were invited to begin entry negotiations in March. The divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus also was invited.
"With the launch of the enlargement process, we see the dawn of a new era, finally putting an end to the divisions of the past," the EU leaders declared in their final statement.
As with NAFTA, however, Western Europe's opening to the East is fraught with uncertainty. The Easterners want to get in fast. On a recent visit to Brussels, Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek called for negotiations to be finished by 2000. "If the will exists on both sides, it is possible," he insisted.
But these plans appear overly ambitious. Western Europe's present priority is not widening its reach. It is increasing its integration, primarily with the launch of a single currency, planned for the beginning of 1999. The entire first day at the summit was taken up by debate over issues related to monetary union.
The thorny issue of eastward enlargement was shunted off to the second day, and just a single morning. Afterward, European Commission officials argued that they could not expect to accept any new members before 2003-2004, because first they must reform the community's unwieldy political institutions.
"Not only Poland should prepare to enter the European Union," argues Mr. Geremek. "The European Union should also prepare to welcome Poland."
But so far, the EU has proved incapable of preparation. Reforms to streamline Brussels decisionmaking are stalled. Impoverished members, such as Spain and Greece, fear cuts in aid payments if even poorer Eastern members are admitted. And throughout the West, even moderate politicians fear that the arrival of the Easterners will destroy jobs at home or water down their strict work, environmental, or safety standards, or their unwieldy and expensive subsidy programs.
And yet, as with the creation of NAFTA, these broad overall differences do not mask the narrow economic issues that often provide the most violent ammunition for disagreements.
Consider farming: The EU now spends $52 billion a year in agricultural subsidies. If farmers from the East gain access to such generous subsidies, the resulting payouts would overwhelm EU finances. So proposals are being floated to cut farm aid.
This idea has met with fierce opposition.
"We're being asked to choose between the American system of industrialized farming or low East European incomes," complains Risto Volanen, director of Copa, the main West European farmer's union. "Neither choice is acceptable."
Instead of uniting the Continent, many fear the West's opening to the East will create more division in Europe.
While pledging to open accession talks with the six countries in Luxembourg, Europe's leaders only offered to begin "preliminary talks" with five other applicants: Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia. Turkey, which has long sought EU membership, was told it was not even ready for that.
The last decision was particularly controversial, since Turkey is a staunch NATO ally. But it also has a poor human right record, and is a Muslim country trying to join a Christian club.
"It cannot be that a country where torture is still practiced has a place at the European Union table," said the summit chairman, Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.
Archrival Greece is the only EU nation to oppose the idea of putting Turkey into a 'European Conference,' an ill-defined forum for pan-European consultations to which the EU would also invite its 11 would-be members.
"We are setting up a guillotine," complained Claudio Azzolini, president of the European Parliament's Christian Democratic grouping. "You are punishing the rejected countries, cutting them off from the rest of Europe."