- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Little Slovenia, emerging from Old World shadows, is remaking itself as a regional dynamo, part of a 25-nation European superstate designed to rival the United States.

Among Europe’s best-kept secrets for its relaxed lifestyle and spectacular Alpine setting, Slovenia exemplifies a quiet revolution that dwarfs imperial dreams dating back a millennium to Charlemagne.

Ten countries as disparate as Poland and Malta are to join 15 European Union member states next May, bringing the total population to 450 million with a combined gross domestic product rivaling America’s.

Despite hesitation among many who oppose a larger EU, a sense of manifest destiny is driving a slow but steady evolution toward open borders, linked societies and a single currency.

“We’re doing away with borders, not only on land, but also in people’s minds,” Janez Potocnik, Slovenia’s minister for European affairs, said in an interview.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — Soviet republics until 1991 — each voted to join. So did Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, all former communist states.

The power of the EU to drive reform is evident on the divided island of Cyprus, where people from the Turkish side peacefully forced open the fortified border this year rather than be left out when the Greek half joins the union.

Malta, another Mediterranean island republic, is also coming in.

If all goes as planned, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania will join in 2007, and others may come later, extending EU borders from Ireland to the Black Sea, skirting the edge of Russia.

For Slovenia, which during most of its long history has lived under some foreigner’s thumb, giving up a measure of newly won independence is particularly significant.

Until its weeklong war of secession from Yugoslavia in 1991, the New Jersey-size nation of 2 million people saw itself as a reluctant doormat between a backward Balkans and a more advanced Europe to the north and west.

After World War II, Slovenia was dissolved into a seamless, gray Yugoslavia, with cooperative farming and state industries. Now a different state has emerged, alive with energy and vibrant colors.

Already, Slovenia’s annual per-capita national product is $10,000, in the range of EU members Greece and Portugal. Its economy grew 3 percent last year, and exports reached $11 billion.

Although their language resembles Serbo-Croatian, Slovenes say their mentality is closer to that of their Austrian and Italian neighbors. They are well-placed to be a center for services and technology for their part of Europe.

When it came to a vote recently, 90 percent chose the EU, far more than in the Baltic states, where citizens also had to consider losing some of the independence they won only 12 years ago.

“It was an easy choice,” said Mr. Potocnik, who led intricate negotiations at EU headquarters in Brussels. “We are part of Europe.”

He believes membership will force Slovenes to work harder and raise their standards, thus ensuring healthy growth in a vastly larger market. With competition, farmers will produce and sell more.

But if Slovenia illustrates European promise, it also shows the problems of lumping together societies of different languages and cultures, many of which have fought bitter wars within living memory.

At the storefront information center set up to cheerlead for the EU, the young man on duty was dubious. Slovenia voted heavily to join, he said, but he knew of no one who was enthusiastic about it.

He asked not to be identified, but a range of others echoed his basic fear: When hard reality dampens high expectations, and rules written in Brussels impinge on daily life 500 miles away in Slovenia, the mood may shift toward hostility.

“What choice do we have?” asked Janez Lotric, head of the Slovenian gasoline company. He is optimistic despite a threat of more competition.

Zoran Thaler, a former foreign minister and now an economic consultant, chose almost the same words. Small states such as Slovenia cannot afford to stand apart from the inevitable.

But, he added, a hodgepodge of so many cultures, income levels and specific national interests may never be able to achieve the EU’s goal of common policies for defense and foreign affairs.

Closer to home, Mr. Thaler worries about the effects on daily life.

Cars now speed up from Croatia, often with only a glance from border guards. Next year, that border will be Fortress Europe’s rampart holding back the tide of illegal immigration from the Balkans and the Middle East.

People walk under the president’s windows and wander into government ministries, ignoring the metal detectors, because neither crime nor terrorism is a major concern. EU security standards are different.

At Ljubljana’s riverside market, Lidinja Kurtic, 28, sells tulips she imports from the Netherlands. Next year, she expects Dutch merchants to come sell the tulips themselves.

The ambivalence is reflected in conversations and polls in each candidate nation, as well as in the 15 that already are member states. Many people are loath to reshape their societies for distant cousins of dubious relation.

Poland, population 39 million and the largest of the newcomers, is particularly worried about agriculture. The EU’s yearly $45 billion in subsidies favors big agribusiness, endangering thousands of family farms.

Newcomers hoping to cash in on EU subsidies can expect only a fraction of what Spain and Portugal got after joining. Germany, the richest member, is in recession.

All of this unsettles EU enthusiasts. According to complexities set out in 80,000 pages of law — each translated into a score of languages — a single country’s recalcitrance can gum up the works.

Swedish voters sent a chill across the whole community in September by refusing to abandon their own currency for the euro that is now the sole legal tender in 12 of the EU countries.

Hopes for a joint foreign and defense policy came unstuck this year as divisions emerged within the EU over supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq.

In the hills of Provence in southern France, retired farmer Antoine Garcin summed up the mood of many Europeans: “It can’t work. It’s all about big business. What do bureaucrats behind this know, or care, about us?”

The doubters fear the leveling force of Brussels will squeeze the flavor out of everything from cheese to chocolate and blur cultural distinctions, while taxes collected in one country will go to help faceless strangers in another.

In Paris, insurance executive Patrick Dana sees the opposite: “It is already working and will only get better. Things like the euro and open borders have changed our lives. I don’t feel any less French.”

The pan-Europeans argue that a stronger EU will, in fact, bolster cultural identity and give a louder voice to peoples such as the Scots and Basques, who feel restricted by their national governments.

This fall, EU members debated a constitution drafted over 16 months in a process some Europeans liken to the work of the U.S. Founding Fathers.

But opponents say the bulky and stiffly worded document smacks more of a merger contract than an inspired Magna Carta. Britain’s weekly Economist suggested the best place for it was a garbage can.

The new constitution must define how to manage 25 mismatched states, balancing national sovereignty with effective government.

Opponents decry the growing power in the hands of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, is supposed to have more power, and even some of its members dismiss it as a debating forum.

The nearest thing to EU leadership is a rotating six-month presidency — too brief and toothless to matter much. It is now held by Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, under fire at home for reputed corruption and reviled in Germany for bringing up its Nazi past.

Business is conducted by a Council of Ministers appointed by their native countries. Seated around a gigantic table, they wage heated polyglot debates under the constant threat of a veto from any disgruntled participant.

In the end, pro-Europeans in Slovenia and elsewhere argue, the grand concept will outweigh the operational difficulties and succeed by negotiation where Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon and Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire used force and failed.

For them, the answer lies in the landmark 2001 declaration that envisaged an expanded EU: “Europe is finally going to become one big family, without bloodshed.”

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