Across Eastern Europe, it's like senior year in high school. Eight of these countries have been admitted to college (the European Union). Bulgaria and Romania just heard they'll start in January. Will they, like the others, succumb to the lethargy of "senioritis"?
This analogy's not a perfect fit because EU newcomers such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have been members for two years now. But like students, they worked like mad to get into Europe's premier political and economic club and they're tired after the big push to gain entry.
Now that they're in, many are sloughing off on required reforms and acting up politically. Let's hope this doesn't happen to the two freshmen, which still must buckle down, especially to curb crime and corruption.
The reforms for EU entry have indeed been demanding, especially on these former members of the Soviet Bloc. The way that their command economies were dismantled to make way for market-driven ones caused social and economic upheaval.
Unrealistic expectations led many to believe in overnight riches. They've been disappointed to watch a very wealthy class emerge (in many instances through ill-gotten gains). Civil servants and retirees have had a hard time making their limited income cover higher prices. Average gross domestic output among the Eastern European eight is just reaching the level of 1989, when the Berlin wall fell, and average unemployment is still a serious 13.5 percent.
Perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone, then, that Hungarians recently rioted over admitted lies from their prime minister about the country's economic health – and his campaign bait-and-switch in which he promised welfare protection but now wants to make citizens start paying for university and healthcare. Hungary and the Czech Republic are also delaying adopting the euro currency (they can't get their finances in order). The new populist Slovakian prime minister wants to roll back reforms. And anti-EU sentiment is rising in Poland, which, like other governments in the region, is unstable.
Now is a good time to flash the big picture in front of the newcomers, and remind them that the market economies of the democracies in the EU, like a college degree, improve prosperity and security – the very reasons for the EU in the first place. The demands of membership are worth continued hard work, and Eastern Europe is already benefiting from EU trade and investment.
Economic growth in the eight averaged 4.5 percent in 2005. Exports rose 20 percent in their first year of membership. Foreign investment is playing a huge role in their development, while it was virtually nonexistent 10 years ago. As for security, remember that Poland's president played a critical role in the peaceful outcome of Ukraine's "orange revolution," and that the lure of EU membership has helped calm the Balkans.
The reminders of prosperity and security are just as appropriate for the Western Europeans, who are tired of taking on new members. Indeed, the EU has signaled that Bulgaria and Romania are it for now, until the club figures out how to better manage its bigger size. Perhaps it does need a breather, but neither the old-comers nor the newbies should lose sight of expansion's benefits.