- - Thursday, July 7, 2011

DUBLIN — Riots in Athens. Border controls in Denmark. Growing nationalism in the Netherlands and France.

The European Union is looking anything but united these days. As troubles persist and grow, EU leaders are pushing for further enlargement, with countries such as Croatia and Iceland eagerly lining up to join.

“Europe wants to show that it can repeat the success stories of the enlargements in 2004 and 2007,” said Almut Moeller, who specializes in EU integration issues at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

“[EU leaders] want to show they can use the union’s transformative power to bring peace and stability. And even though it isn’t always working beautifully, membership is quite an interesting prospect for Croatia and others because they know that being part of a big economic bloc brings tremendous benefits.”

Still, as Europe’s economic crisis deepens, clashes last month between police and protesters demonstrating against Greek austerity measures hint at a deeper crisis — one of political legitimacy. Greece has instituted deep cuts in public services in exchange for billions of dollars in bailout funds from EU member states, sparking protests and criticism of Greek fiscal responsibility.

What’s more, Denmark’s plan announced this week to increase customs checks at its borders has drawn fierce opposition from Germany, which argues that the Danish initiative violates one of the EU’s founding principles: the unencumbered movement of people and goods among the 27 member states.

All for one?

Anti-EU sentiment is on the rise across the Continent.

A poll conducted by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies found that more than 40 percent of European civil servants said joining the EU had produced a negative effect for their countries in the past 10 years.

In addition, European leaders and institutions increasingly are viewed as aloof and out of touch by those hit by austerity measures in Greece, as well as those paying for bailouts in countries such as Germany and France, analysts say.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been criticized by fellow EU members for hedging on financial bailout measures and castigating the Spaniards, Greeks and Portuguese for the length of their vacations and their retirement age.

But Mrs. Merkel was playing to an electorate that is losing enthusiasm for the “European project” and now believes Germany is acting as “Europe’s wallet.” Polls show that 60 percent of Germans oppose further financial help for Greece.

“People don’t make the connection between the fact that Germany is doing so well economically and being part of the eurozone,” Mr. Moeller said. “That is the failure of [the German] government, for not only failing to explain this but also going along with the public mood of bashing the Greeks for being lazy.”

Greeks say their future is gloomy and uncertain. After two years in recession, the country’s economy is weighed down by corruption, tax evasion, inefficient bureaucracy and rising unemployment. Greek officials already have increased taxes and cut the minimum wage.

“Even though I’m generally an optimistic person, I can’t see anything positive coming in the future,” said Marios Theodwrou, a shop owner in Syntagma Square in Athens, the heart of protests last month against the Greek government.

Greeks also criticize the help they have received from fellow Europeans.

“Europeans have given money to Greece, but they did it because they had their own agenda,” said Elen Tsourounaki-Peck, 35, of Athens. “The Greek crisis is a systemic crisis, but above all a European crisis. When the European leaders were summoned to deal with it, they were indecisive and appeared [to cater] to vested interests.”

EU officials say the nations must stick together and ride out the political crises as well as the worst recession since the 1930s. Some also say the Continent is at a political crossroads.

“I think it has reached a point where it’s either more or less Europe,” said George Magnus, an economist with Swiss financial services company UBS. “The status quo can’t continue.”

Mr. Magnus said it is not fair to pin the blame for the crisis on troubled countries such as Greece or Ireland, as many Germans have.

“It’s important that countries should be self-disciplined, but there is a need for a systemic understanding,” he said. “You can hang people out to dry, but if the Irish or Greeks borrowed too much, that means somebody had to lend them too much. The eurozone will not be able to function if leaders don’t address this question.”

Like Greece, Ireland and Portugal have applied for bailout funds.

But unlike in Greece, few in Ireland are protesting in the streets, even as the Irish government has implemented harsh austerity measures including tax increases, cuts to public services and a widely unpopular raid on pensions.

On June 19, a few dozen activists held a protest in Dublin against the austerity measures. On the same day, though, 3,701 people turned up dressed as the character from “Where’s Waldo?” to break the world record for the largest number of Waldos in the same place.

Still, the Irish unemployment rate is 14.2 percent and emigration is widespread and growing.

Too big to fail

Lorcan Roche Kelly, chief Europe strategist at the global economic analysis firm Trend Macrolytics in Dublin, said there is little doubt that Ireland’s and other countries’ relationships with the EU are changing, but that the bloc will stay intact in the long run.

“It’s fashionable to say the EU will break up and the euro is finished,” Mr. Kelly said. “The euro is not finished. There is so much political capital involved in this project that it cannot fail and it will not fail.”

Regardless of the power politics, EU credibility is looking threadbare as opposition sentiment grows at the polls. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front party; Geert Wilders, head of the Netherlands’ Freedom Party; and the far-right True Finns Party in Finland have made significant gains among voters.

“Populist parties have been able to portray their national political classes as part of the out-of-touch EU elite,” said Gavan Titley, a sociology lecturer at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth and formerly a researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland. “For example, in the last three opinion polls, the True Finns were the largest party in the country.”

The EU is doing itself few favors by pushing through unpopular austerity plans, Mr. Titley said, noting the pressure that EU leaders placed on Greek lawmakers to approve austerity legislation.

“The spectacle of Greek protesters being tear-gassed while [EU economic commissioner] Ollie Rehn says, ‘You need to sign this,’ is going to have consequences,” Mr. Titley said.

In a Eurobarometer poll commissioned by the European Parliament, 42 percent of Europeans said they were dissatisfied with the transparency of the EU administration and 9 percent said they were satisfied; 35 percent said they were unhappy with the effectiveness of the EU administration.

While some in certain member states want to leave the EU or at least renegotiate the terms of the union, other European countries remain on the outside peering in with longing.

Fiercely independent Iceland is on the fast track to membership, and Croatia’s pending membership was approved in late June. Others including Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Turkey wait in the wings.

Former Croatian presidential candidate Vesna Pusic, now a researcher who monitors the EU accession talks, said membership is vital for the former Soviet republic.

“It’s a good thing, though there are, of course, problems with the EU,” Ms. Pusic said. “But this is about validation. Here, [EU membership] is seen as something good. People primarily think of how it will help to grow the economy.”

Elsewhere, some wonder about that.

“The Europeans have helped [us],” said Onoufrios Dovletis, 26, of Athens. “I don’t think we should leave the eurozone. We shouldn’t have joined from the very beginning.”

c Nikolia Apostolou reported from Athens, and Jabeen Bhatti contributed from Berlin.

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