- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — “Back to Europe!” was the rallying cry of the downtrodden when this corner of the continent shook off communism 15 years ago.

Now, with European might and prosperity finally within its grasp, there is a palpable sense of great expectations, with all the attendant hopes and fears.

On May 1, the Czech Republic and nine other mostly ex-communist countries — three of them former Soviet republics — join the European Union, enlarging the bloc from 15 nations to 25.

The new Europe is already taking on some of the trappings of the nation-building that produced the United States — open borders, a shared currency, a constitution in the making.

The approaching enlargement unquestionably will be the Continent’s most significant economic and political shift since it was devastated by World War II and then cut in two by the Cold War.

But will Europe’s new dawn bring the best of times — unrivaled security, influence and wealth? Or some of the worst — price increases, a loss of national sovereignty, a harsh new class system dividing the “old” Europe from the “new?”

From the craggy coastline of the Baltic Sea to the thickly forested foothills of the Balkan Mountains, anticipation is undercut by anticlimax — a sense that the historic expansion will offer ordinary citizens too little, too late.

“Many people will be very disappointed. The expectations were sky-high — just not realistic,” said Petr Mach, who runs the Center for Economics and Politics, a conservative think tank in Prague.

“A lot of people who voted ‘yes’ to the EU didn’t understand what it really means,” he said. “Many people are entering with their hearts, not their heads.”

The ex-communist East, where many have embraced capitalism with an almost religious fervor, fairly pulses with yearning for a better life.

Estonian farmers imagine trading their mules for diesel-powered combines; Slovak motorists, their rusty Skodas for BMWs; Hungarian villagers, their thatched cottages and wood stoves for air-conditioned villas and three-car garages.

But they don’t want to be swallowed up in a Europe where policy is dictated by its big powers, or see their lawmakers — already preoccupied with implementing 80,000 pages of EU laws — supplanted by EU bureaucrats.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus, an avowed Euroskeptic, warns that governments will have “virtually zero influence” in the new European superstate.

In theory, the enlarged European Union will offer unprecedented freedom of movement and business opportunities. Overnight, it will widen from 380 million people to 455 million — a potential economic powerhouse dwarfing the United States with its 280 million people.

Trucks loaded with consumer goods bound both east and west will rumble past bleak border checkpoints where they now must line up for hours awaiting customs inspections.

It will become easier to cross a border, and that alone should create a heady sense of liberty for the newcomers. For 40 years, they were locked behind the Iron Curtain, and even afterward, they had to endure daylong waits for visas and humiliating questioning by border guards.

“I’m looking forward to the moment when we’ll be able to pass the border under the ‘EU Citizens Only’ sign,” said Magda Pasiec, 30, a designer in Warsaw.

“I’ve always felt like a second-class person when I see how smoothly they pass while we have to wait in long lines, our passports in hand,” she said. “Perhaps it’s not such a big thing, but it will have an important symbolic meaning for me.”

Yet as May 1 approaches, many in the East are dismayed to learn they won’t be able to work in the West — at least not right away.

Fearing an invasion of immigrants, nearly all the 15 current EU countries recently announced plans to wait up to seven years before opening their labor markets to the newcomers.

To people such as Ferenc Gazso, a Hungarian forklift-truck mechanic, it smacks of bait-and-switch.

He is among many convinced that EU enlargement will primarily benefit Western companies while dangling empty promises to the Easterners.

The prospect of the newcomers lobbying successfully to get their way looks bleak. Negotiations on a draft EU constitution are mired in a squabble over how big a voice the new members deserve.

That dispute, and the gulf between highly developed Western Europe and the wannabe East, has led to much hand-wringing over a “two-speed Europe.” One Czech commentator recently lamented that his country is about to enter the European Union “naked and without any real friends.”

The issue was vividly evident when the leaders of Germany, France and Britain held a summit Feb. 18 to which no smaller countries were invited. The snub reflected a rift that widened last year, when France and Germany opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq while many of the newcomer nations sent troops.

What’s far from clear is, who will ultimately lead Europe? The European Union has an elected multinational parliament and an executive body in Brussels, but nothing like a federal, American-style, elected government, and European leaders shy away from the very notion of “a United States of Europe.”

Then there’s a fear that big business will swamp the struggling Eastern European economies.

“Our economy doesn’t stand a chance against the big companies in the EU,” said Mr. Gazso, 29, the Hungarian mechanic. “They’ll just come here even more easily, use our cheap labor and then take all the profits out of the country, leaving us with nothing.”

Jiri Zboril disagrees. Two years ago, he opened a shop in Prague specializing in architecture books — a simple entrepreneurial act that would have been inconceivable before 1989, when Czechoslovakia’s communist regime fell.

“Joining the EU is very good for us because we’re importing and exporting books all over Europe,” said Mr. Zboril, 43. “It will be much easier for us to buy and sell. We won’t have to fill out all those endless customs forms anymore. It now takes me two or three hours just to do the paperwork for one shipment.”

Western companies have been investing in the East in anticipation of enlargement. They include U.S. Steel Corp., which bought a huge steel plant in the eastern Slovak city of Kosice in 2000 — a venture so successful the Pittsburgh-based giant is considering similar joint ventures in Hungary and Poland.

Germany’s Siemens said last month it will create software programming jobs in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

The German economic footprint in Eastern Europe is already enormous — an irony not lost on older generations, who remember the destructive years of Nazi occupation.

But Siemens also plans significant expansions in India and China, and that underscores a troubling trend: Wages and benefits have improved to the point where the EU newcomers are less attractive to Western capitalists than the developing nations of Asia.

Economists caution that it could take years to noticeably lift living standards in the East. The newcomers aren’t expected to adopt the European Union’s common currency, the euro, until 2007 or 2008.

“Accession will not have any immediate marked economic effects either on the ‘old’ or the ‘new’ member states,” said a report by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies.

The shift in thinking is dramatic — from jubilation a year ago, when voters in the 10 nations approved EU membership, to the resignation felt in Eastern Europe today. It is captured in an Estonian newspaper cartoon that depicts a bewildered man staring into his wallet and thinking: “That’s funny — it’s just as empty today as it was yesterday.”

Real estate prices are rising in many cities, such as the Slovak capital, Bratislava, less than an hour’s drive from Vienna. The notion of Bratislava becoming a bedroom suburb of Vienna sounds like a post-communist idyll, but it cuts both ways: Residents are being priced out of the housing market.

Mr. Mach, the Czech political analyst, accuses his government of mounting a “very misleading” campaign that trumpeted the benefits of membership while ignoring the drawbacks.

“All those billboards didn’t tell people that taxes on diapers would go up, or that the government would have to spend millions to join, or that the price of bread would rise because producers would have to conform to EU standards,” he said.

Yet there’s a pro for every con.

Czech dentists will charge more after May 1, because they have to spend up to $40,000 upgrading their equipment to EU standards. But patients will benefit from state-of-the-art care.

Poland’s Agriculture Ministry warns that 1,000 small butcher shops will likely close because they don’t meet EU sanitary standards, laying off 10,000 people in a country already struggling with 20 percent unemployment. But Polish farmers stand to cash in on $3.7 billion in EU subsidies that will help them modernize.

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