Dawn of a new era – History is made as Europe expands

Tomorrow (May 1) will see 10 new states join the European Union, increasing the number of members to 25. The expansion of the bloc is being touted as an opportunity to secure greater prosperity and stability for the EU’s population. But growth will also pose many new challenges.

A new identity

This historic enlargement will see the dawn of a new era for many fast-developing Eastern European countries that were behind the communist Iron Curtain until 1989, but which are now set to join the affluent West. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all waited 15 years to join Europe’s most exclusive club. Other new entrants are the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Greek-governed Cyprus.

The inclusion of the new members means that the EU’s surface area will increase by a quarter, making it the world’s biggest single market in population terms. For the first time in modern history, more than 450 million Europeans will be united in a single political entity, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Baltic States’ eastern border with Russia. Those in favour of the move argue that it will result in greater European cohesion, more employment opportunities and freedom of movement.

Portuguese fear competition

Portugal joined the European Union, then known as the EEC, in 1986. At the time it was one of the poorest members of the EU. Today, despite vast improvements to its infrastructure, average wages are still only a third of the EU average. In addition, Portugal still has one of the lowest growth rates of the original 15. President Jorge Sampaio acknowledged Portugal’s difficult economic situation in his address to the nation to mark the 30th anniversary of the Revolution. “Comparing the year 2000 to last year, unemployment has increased from 4.1 per cent to 6.4 per cent and purchasing power has fallen from 70.4 per cent to 68.8 per cent of the European Union average,” he said.

A recent poll found that the majority of Portuguese people (43 per cent) think that the expansion of the EU will have mainly negative consequences for the country. Most of the interviewees (64 per cent) cited heightened competition from a skilled but cheaper workforce as most damaging to Portugal. This was followed (cited by 15 per cent) by fears of a reduction in EU funding for Portugal. Third in the list of concerns (cited by 12 per cent) was the perceived loss of Portuguese political influence within the EU. On the positive side, 37 per cent of respondents envisaged gateways to new markets for Portuguese goods.

The Resident spoke to two Portuguese people to gauge their reaction to the expansion.

Jorge Costa, 53, is a CDS-PP supporter and has strong views about European expansion. Jorge does not believe Portugal has gained from EU membership. “Economically, it’s not been good for Portugal – it’s a disaster. All the money we received from the EU has gone to the officials from the PSD and the PS,” he explained. Jorge thinks that education is the most pressing issue facing his country. “Education in Portugal is the worst in Europe,” he says.

Inês Antunes, 24, fears that the new members will provide stiff competition for Portugal. “It won’t be good for Portugal because from an economic point of view these countries will be very competitive and labour will cost less, like in Germany where they use services provided by Poland. Also, companies will want to invest in these new countries rather than Portugal because labour costs are far cheaper.”

But Inês is not entirely pessimistic. “It could give Portugal an incentive to improve its education and economic performance. We must follow the example of countries like Ireland, which has done really well,” she says. She believes Portugal’s membership of the EU has been a mixed blessing. “Some of the decisions in Brussels do not really apply to us. We have a different economic reality from other EU countries.”

Like Inês and Jorge, most Portuguese citizens concede their country will have to upgrade its skills base, mentioning education as the number one priority. President Jorge Sampaio also highlighted the importance of education in his recent address. “It is vital to improve our standard of education. This is not a question that depends on budgetary constraints. It is a fundamental issue – a great national crusade that will need structural reforms,” he said.

Although the future is regarded by many with some scepticism, 47 per cent of those questioned viewed Portugal’s membership of the EU as an advantage, while only 16 per believed membership had been damaging. This echoes the findings of other polls that show the Portuguese to be one of the least ‘eurosceptic’ nations in the bloc.

Great Britain is a famously eurosceptic island and British citizen Adam Hartman, 37, predicts a different problem: “My big fear is that an enlarged Europe will fan the flames of nationalism and boost the parties of the extreme right. People will lose their sense of national identity, come to feel that they are insignificant in a vast, bureaucratic federal Europe and they may blame immigrants for their perceived sense of powerlessness. We have already seen that in countries such as France,” he told The Resident.

Other Brits are more optimistic about the move. Helen Taylor, 45, believes that opening the EU to new citizens can only be a positive move. “If you view yourself as an EU citizen, rather than a British or Portuguese national, you can see how allowing new members into the club is a good thing. Most of the Eastern Europeans, Cypriots and Maltese workers that I’ve come across are good, honest hard working people. Including them in our economic and political future is a positive as far as I’m concerned.”

Fear of gridlock

But there are also some other, more general concerns that go in tandem with enlargement. A major fear in Brussels is that, with 25 countries round the table, meetings will take longer and it will be harder to take decisions. Pessimists predict gridlock and say that incoming member states are also likely to resist new EU initiatives that cost more than they can afford.

Most of the newcomers are relatively poor European countries. Their average GDP per head is 40 per cent of the average level in the existing 15 EU member states. Some, however, are richer than others. Cyprus and Slovenia are at the top of the scale, with 70 per cent or more of average EU wealth levels, while Latvia is closer to 35 per cent. Whether these countries overtake Portugal, and eventually Great Britain, in the prosperity tables, will be the subject of intense interest in Lisbon, London and beyond.