The European Union expands eastward - again
On New Year's day, the European Union (EU) once again pushed its borders further east. Romania and Bulgaria became the latest entrants to the EU, and although there was much celebration in Bucharest and Sofia, elsewhere the occasion was more subdued. Brussels is beginning to feel the burden of EU expansion; likewise, European expansion has been a trying moment for various individual member states. However, thanks to globalisation and a number of other geo-political and strategic aims, the European Commission will continue to push through with expansion -- next time to the Balkans -- despite warnings from some that further expansion may in the end do harm to the notion of a united Europe.
There were many who have been wary of the entry of both Romania and Bulgaria citing their low level of conformity to EU norms, especially in terms of corruption. Ironically, some the sharpest critics came from some of the newer member states which had joined the EU a mere two and a half years ago. Within these countries, many felt a sense of bitterness as they had to go through a much more stringent accession process. Pundits from these countries argue that if they were in a similar state of preparedness then as Romania and Bulgaria are now, they wouldn't have had a chance of joining the EU in 2004.
Along these lines, it appears that EU standards and ideals have been sacrificed for the sake of political expediency, much in the same way as with the first round of eastward expansion in 2004. Then, it was assumed that the ten accession states wouldn't all join at the same time, that they would enter the EU in successive waves. The mass expansion which subsequently occurred may have been more convenient for Brussels, but for most accession countries it represented a worst case scenario. There was less development aid and other sources of funding as EU money now had to be shared among a larger pool of new members.
Yet it's not only among the relatively new member states of Central and Eastern Europe that further eastward expansion hasn't been welcomed wholeheartedly. The disillusionment and lack of euphoria for the latest round of EU expansion can perhaps be best seen in the UK. In 2004, when the countries of Central and Eastern Europe joined the EU, the UK was one of the few countries which kept its borders open to workers from the east. Since then, London has learned its lesson. The UK has been swamped by Polish workers, who have set up their own small communities within the UK. Many don't even speak English and fail to integrate into the rest of British society. As a result, the UK has now decided to put limits on workers from Romania and Bulgaria, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
When it comes to the question of migrant workers, once again the relatively new member states of Central and Eastern Europe are caught in an enigmatic irony. Like the UK and other member states of the EU, many fear an invasion of cheap labour from the east. Hence, as in the UK some have initiated some form of control in order to stem the tide. Yet these are the very same countries which two and half years ago had pleaded with other member states to keep western European labour markets open in order to accomodate Central and Eastern Europeans intent on travelling west in search of work and better living conditions.
Despite these and other behind-the-scenes problems, national governments throughout Europe have accepted EU expansion into Romania and Bulgaria as a fait accompli. In fact, in Hungary the accession of Romania in particular has drawn a mixed, almost schizophrenic response. Over the past few years the Hungarian government successfully campaigned against attempts to give Hungarians living outside the country's borders special status or even citizenship, at one point noting that in doing so Hungary would be invaded by 23 million people from Romania. Apart from the absurd figure of 23 million people (which represents every man, woman, and child in Romania, both Hungarian and Romanian), the fact that this same government later endorsed the accession of Romania to the EU (where indeed every man, woman, and child now can enter Hungary legally) demonstrates an apparent contradiction and double-standard in government policy.
Yet it's not only government policy which suffers from schizophrenia. For many Hungarians as well the accession of Romania to the EU brings with it mixed feelings. One the one hand many look upon Romania as a backward country which doesn't fulfill the expectations one has of an EU member state. Furthermore, in addition to the fear of cheap labour flowing across the border, there is also concern that many companies will pack up and move to Romania where not only is labour cheap, but certain types of "restrictive" legislation (i.e., environmental and labour laws) are lax.
On the other hand, many Hungarians view the accession of Romania to the EU as a reunification of sorts. This is also a view shared by most Hungarians living in Transylvania as they seek to further their ultimate objective of cultural, political, economic, and perhaps even territorial autonomy. Thus, although one of the intended aims of the EU is to peacefully bring down borders across Europe, how this will actually work in practice with Hungary on one side, Romania on the other, and Transylvania in the middle, remains to be seen. One thing is for certain: it won't be easy. A mere month prior to joining the EU an incident broke out when two Hungarian professors at a university in Romania were expelled for putting up bilingual signs.
Aside from all this, what is important is not only what existing member states think of the two new accession countries, but what these accession countries think of the EU. So far, Romanians and Bulgarians have taken to the EU in much the same way as the other relatively new member states of Central and Eastern Europe did two and a half years ago. Most Romanians and Bulgarians express a sense of optimism for the future. For the vast majority in both countries, the main benefits of joining the EU is the ability to travel and study in another member state, in addition to job opportunities abroad. It should come as no surprise that these reasons are the exact same ones expressed by those whose countries joined the EU in 2004.
If recent history is anything to go by, this sense of optimism will last for about a half year or so, until reality finally kicks in. Sadly, it looks as if history will repeat itself in both Romania and Bulgaria when it will be discovered that not only is the grass not greener on the other side, but in many instances there is no grass there at all. Rather than learn from others before them, in particular that EU membership in many ways represents a form of colonisation in where local markets are destroyed for the sake of globalisation, Romanians and Bulgarians seemed to have ignored the signs and settled for the beaten path. Had they chosen the road less travelled, it perhaps could have made all the difference. (John Horvath)