Enlargement 's the view from Estonia

  • 2005-05-11
  • By Alec Charles
TALLINN - Audentes University hosted an international conference in Tallinn at the end of April to mark the first anniversary of EU enlargement. With over 200 delegates from more than 20 different countries, the views expressed on the benefits and problems of enlargement were, to say the least, mixed.

Estonian PR guru Aune Past recently conducted a survey of how local people view EU membership. "More than half the people said they were totally happy," she said. "Not just happy 's but totally happy!"

Priit Kolbre, the chancellor of Estonia's Foreign Ministry, made a similar point.

"Estonia was one of the most skeptical of the acceding countries, with only just over 50 percent of Estonia's population supporting accession," he said. "After one year, I think we've done relatively well, as support for EU membership has risen to 70 percent."

However, Martin Kern, acting head of the EC representation in Estonia, struck a note of caution. The commission's own survey on attitudes about the EU constitution produced results that Kern himself found sobering.

"I'll just give you two typical replies," he said. "This was a young person: 'There was some fuss around it. I can't remember what it was. I don't care. It's all the same to me. Whatever comes, it comes. There's nothing more to do.'"

"And one woman said: 'I'm totally stupid about it. Obviously there's no interest, as it hasn't become vitally important to me yet.'"

Public ignorance about the European Union is not, of course, limited to Estonia. It is, in fact, pretty deeply ingrained in some of the older member states.

"I first came to Estonia three years ago," said Christopher Cook, a BBC journalist. "When I returned to England there was a report in one of the popular British newspapers that, when enlargement came about, we could confidently expect the complete working population of Estonia and their immediate dependents to be hurrying to the UK in search of work and welfare benefits. When I came here this year, it was a great relief to discover that Tallinn hadn't been completely depopulated."

"Some developments may be quite worrying," added Pierre Clement Dubuisson, Belgium's ambassador to Estonia. "There was a recent debate on television between Jacques Chirac and a number of young French people on the adoption of the EU constitution. I must say that this was evidence of how difficult it is for the political class to have constructive, convincing dialogue with the population.

"I hope that, through exchanges between France and the new European countries, the younger generation can regain some of its trust, some of its hope, for a better future."

Dutch Ambassador Joanna van Vliet also stressed this issue: "Cultural exchanges are very important," she said. "We have to get to know each other, so we understand where we're coming from when we try to look after our shared interests."

One such example was provided by Jim Franklin from the University of Luton in the U.K.. Dr. Franklin described how EU accession had led to a flood of students into Britain. So far this year, his own university has taken 29 applications from Estonia, 45 from Latvia and 309 from Lithuania.

"I often scratch my head and wonder about Lithuania," he said.

Dr. Franklin explained how these students offer Britain not only cultural, but also economic benefits. "Many of these students earn and learn at the same time, so they're making a contribution to the local economy," he said.

These contributions have been felt most strongly by Britain and Ireland, the only two of the older EU states to open their borders to migrant workers from the accession nations.

"I come from a small town in the west of Ireland 's one of the poorest parts of Ireland," said Irish Ambassador Noel Kilkenny. "I was home at Easter, and there were 220 Poles working there, refurbishing a power plant. They're welcomed into the community, they're saving their money, and most of them intend to go back to Poland within two years."

Hopes and concerns

The EU, of course, still faces many problems 's not least of which are related to its proposed Constitution, its budgetary negotiations, and its economic strategies.

"The Lisbon Strategy hasn't fulfilled the requirements established in 2000," said Kari Liuhto, director of the Pan-European Institute at the Turku School of Economics in Finland. "The plan to make the EU the most competitive economic zone by 2010 still seems a bit far away."

The establishment of a European defense force also remains a contentious and problematic issue.

"How many airplanes that can carry a tank does the EU have?," asked Andras Racz, a defense expert from Hungary. "Four! Four planes that the British are leasing from the United States. We still have some problems in the field of military capabilities."

And Latvian journalist Karlis Streips challenged Swedish Ambassador Dag Hartelius on one case that's particularly pertinent to the Baltics.

"Latvian company goes to Sweden to build school," said Streips. "Swedish labor unions block company. Swedish government does not intervene. Latvian company goes home. Latvian company is left with the impression that European principles mean nothing."

"My guess is we'll go to the European court to have an assessment as to whether this is in conformity with European principles or not," Ambassador Hartelius said.

Yet, despite these difficulties, most of the delegates at the conference spoke positively about the broader political effects of enlargement.

"Although the short-term economic issues of integration have attracted our attention most, the really interesting implications for the future of mankind will be in the areas of the Union's social and political evolution," said Professor Oktay Yenal, formerly of the World Bank.

This view was echoed by Jim Hall from University College Falmouth in the U.K..

"We can see the enlarged EU as the defining ideological project of the 21st century," said Hall. "When a lot of thinking on the other side of the Atlantic has attempted to fracture the world, then what we're doing in Europe becomes particularly important as a bridge between two increasingly irreconcilable understandings of the world."

"The enlargement of the European Union was an act of statesmen and not just of politicians," added Hungarian Ambassador to Estonia Laszlo Nikicser. "You know the difference between statesmen and politicians? Politicians think just about the next elections, statesmen about the next generations."

"There's no alternative to the European project," said Austrian Ambassador Jakub Forst-Battaglia. "We'll have to do a lot to make this work, because Europe's always a work in progress 's it's never a finished thing. Though we might have setbacks and disappointments, we should never lose the hope or the energy to work for the future."

The full text of the proceedings of this conference will be published next month. For more information, please contact alec.charles@university.ee.