With bitter humor honed during four decades of Communist rule, Central and East Europeans from Estonia to Slovenia tell the same joke:
"When will European Union expansion take place?
"In two years," is the reply, regardless of what year the question is posed.
After repeated delays - and a new setback delivered by Irish voters last weekend - frustration is beginning to boil among nations that pinned their hopes on quick accession - the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Slovenia, and Cyprus.
In a sense, the issue of EU expansion has become the vision of elites, both eastern and western. While public opinion in the leading candidate states is largely in favor of EU membership, there are also movements in countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic that directly challenge the sacrifices that have been made in the name of integration.
"It could become a little riskier if we don't succeed in joining the EU in the next three to four years," says Janusz Reiter, head of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. "Time is a very important part of the game. Nobody knows how much time we have. But everybody knows time is not unlimited."
Voters in Ireland appeared to push back EU enlargement yet again, when a slim majority rejected the Treaty of Nice in a referendum. The agreement, which West European leaders forged amid acrimony in December, expressed the "hope" that the first applicant countries would join as early as 2004.
Mr. Reiter sees the Irish referendum as a sign of "the erosion of European solidarity," but says that EU leaders are well aware of this.
The surprising results of the Irish vote overshadow an EU summit later this week in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Although West European foreign ministers reiterated their commitment to the current pace of membership negotiations at a meeting on Monday, the referendum served as a rude reminder of the huge gap between public opinion and official EU policy.
Many ordinary EU citizens seem indifferent or even hostile to the idea of new member states.
But Czech President Vaclav Havel warned Friday that any further delay of eastward expansion would be "suicidal" for Europe as a whole. In past years, Western leaders have bandied about a variety of target dates, all of which have passed.
Some observers warn that irritation in post-communist countries could turn into anti-European sentiment if the EU doesn't complete membership talks with the most-qualified aspirants by 2002, as set out in the Nice Treaty.
Bogged down in internal squabbles
While Mr. Havel and other European visionaries, such as former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, cast the daunting project of integration as more than an economic necessity - but almost a moral imperative - the question of EU enlargement today has become bogged down in a swamp of petty arguments.
Elmar Brok, chairman of the European Parliament's committee on foreign affairs, says it is natural for the 15 EU member states to pursue their national interests. Yet he draws a direct connection between taking in new members and necessary institutional reform, also set out in the Nice Treaty.
"Here we have the two problems: the larger the Union becomes, the more majority voting (as opposed to unanimous decision-making) we need to overcome certain conflicts of interest," says Mr. Brok. "The second point is that we have to get more political leaders who look not just in the national interest, but what it means for overall European interests."
In 1992, Danish voters blocked the Maastricht Treaty, which heralded the common European currency, and only approved it in a second referendum after extensive changes.
Earlier this year, Spain threatened to impede eastward expansion unless the EU guaranteed that generous subsidies to its impoverished regions - the allocations are based on average EU poverty levels - would continue for years.
Critics charge that in the case of the Irish plebiscite, the government in Dublin didn't do enough to convince the public of the need for the Nice Treaty. Low turnout may also have been factor. An EU-wide poll last fall showed the Irish were second only to the Greeks in support of enlargement, with 59 percent in favor. By contrast, only about one-third of Germans and Austrians support adding new members.
All EU countries must ratify the Treaty of Nice for it to take effect, though only Ireland chose a referendum. Both Ireland and the EU agree that the treaty cannot be renegotiated, so Dublin will have to take its case back to the people.
Some foes of EU enlargement seized on the result. Jorg Haider, the nationalist firebrand of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, ruminated about a similar plebiscite. Austria, which has four candidate countries as neighbors, is one of the EU countries least enthusiastic about enlargement.
Petr Jezek, director of the Department for the EU and Western Europe in the Czech Foreign Ministry, understands the skepticism among the West European public. "It's not easy for ordinary citizens to dream about values," he says. "Every man is confronted with daily issues, daily worries. People don't usually think about things that can't be touched, like 'European values.' "
Looking for a signal
Nevertheless, the Irish referendum has sent a jolt through Central European capitals, and regional leaders will be watching the summit in Sweden anxiously.
"We expect from the Gothenburg summit that the language from Nice will be made more binding," says Mr. Jezek. "There is more necessity than before to send a signal to the candidate countries that the enlargement process is still well on track."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor