- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

The increasingly potent anti-immigration movement in Western Europe has thrown a kink into plans to expand the European Union to include as many as a dozen Central and Eastern European states.

With anti-immigration political parties showing strength in European polls, EU leaders and officials from many of the applicant countries are worried that voters in the EU member countries will reject the admission of new states for fear of competition over jobs from a flood of new immigrants.

"There is a clear danger that the window, which was opened for enlargement, is already closing," Guenter Verheugen, the EU commissioner leading the negotiations, told reporters during a visit to Copenhagen on Monday.

"All over Europe, there is a danger that populist movements in European countries will exploit the enlargement [process] as an attractive target to attack European integration in coming elections," Mr. Verheugen said.

Until now, the principal anti-immigration concern of EU nations had been overwhelmingly focused on migrants from the Arab world, the broader Muslim community and workers from Turkey and sub-Saharan Africa.

In a sign of shifting political winds, illegal immigration topped the agenda at a meeting of interior ministers from the 15 EU nations in Rome yesterday. The fear of international terrorism after September 11, coupled with rising concerns about crime levels at home, has fueled the change.

The interior ministers will discuss plans to create a common border guard service amid internal splits over whether the European Union is moving toward a "fortress Europe" mentality.

"Immigration is the single most important phenomenon that we are going to deal with in the coming years," Spanish Interior Minister Mariano Rajoy said yesterday.

Strong showings in recent months by the rightist, anti-immigration National Front in France and the Dutch party founded by populist Pim Fortuyn who advocated a total ban on immigration and was murdered had altered the debate in Europe.

Established leaders such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder are rushing to show their toughness on the issue.

But the timing could prove disastrous for the poorer European countries to the east, which have been rushing to reform their economies, legal systems and border controls in a bid to join the union.

Mr. Verheugen hopes to conclude membership deals by the end of the year with as many as 10 EU hopefuls Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey head the next wave of applicants.

Few economists foresee a massive influx of laborers from east to west if the union enlarges. Current EU members, led by Germany, have insisted on a seven-year transition period before the free movement of workers from the east is allowed.

But polls consistently show that voters in Western Europe are concerned about the effects on jobs and wages if the EU enlargement proceeds. More than a quarter of the 13 million foreign nationals living in the 15-nation EU zone immigrated from the candidate countries.

In 14 of the EU nations, the enlargement must be approved by the national legislature. In Ireland, the question will be put to a national referendum.

Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament, predicted this week that the EU member states would approve new entries despite the gains by anti-immigrant parties.

A vision of a united Europe "will be a much larger part of the attitude of parliamentarians than the mean-spirited capacity of the far right, which I do not believe will dominate the discussion on the enlargement ratification," Mr. Cox said.

Sorin Ducaru, Romania's ambassador to the United States, said his country has taken several steps to beef up its border controls to align its policies with EU standards.

"Some of these steps have been difficult for us, but our message has been we want to be part of the European mainstream," he said.

Jean Lemierre, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, told the British Broadcasting Corp. last month that the process of reform across Central Europe "is certainly driven by the European cause."

"The moment it is postponed there will be a lot of questions," he said.


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