EU hopes and dreams

  • 2001-05-17
Membership of the European Union has now become an unrealistic hope for many Central and Eastern Europeans to improve their lives in the next few years. But this is a misconception.

The EU is not a nation per se, which takes care of its citizens. It is rather a large bureaucracy that tends to require the adoption of tens of thousands of regulations, even prior to the actual admission. Besides the cost of implementing the regulations there are the additional resources that each country will have to fork out to keep up with the ongoing requirements.

On the other side of the coin there is a vague promise of economic development, but that will require decades in its gradual evolution.

One needs only to observe what has happened in the former East Germany, in spite of the billions of dollars invested in rehabilitating and modernizing the region. Unemployment in the former East Germany is still in double digits with its social consequences, especially among the bitterly disappointed youth. And the funds came directly from the former West Germany, not from the EU and its member countries. Lower wages and even poverty in the former East Germany is a desperately serious problem.

The fact that poverty is increasing in the Baltic countries should be of great concern. It will take a long time to cure this social ill.

While GDP is increasing in each of the three countries, the beneficiaries are the few who own businesses or make high salaries, not the general public. The average income is still less than $200 a month, and the cost of living has certainly been rising every year. Many of the consumer goods available in the shops are beyond the affordability of the majority of the people.

Ascension to the EU will not change the situation appreciably, and progress will be very slow in achieving a better standard of living for everyone. After all it took more than 50 years for the countries of Western Europe to rise from the ashes of World War II and achieve what they have today.

It will take a long time for the Baltic countries to rise from the ashes of the Soviet system. So much needs to be done in the areas of housing, transportation, health and infrastructure.

The funds will not come from Brussels, and each Baltic country will have to provide for such improvements, or go without. The latter will most likely be the case.

The Baltic countries have no natural resources, except their forests, and that has a limited attractiveness. The other factor that makes the Baltic countries attractive to investment is the low cost of labor. As long as the cost of labor remains low, there will be investment.

But the beneficiary of the investment will not be the local people, who will be finding themselves in the predicament of seeing their jobs disappear if labor costs reach unacceptable levels. People may very well be trapped in the no-win situation of either having low paying jobs or no jobs at all.

Only the talented and skilled university educated will find jobs in Western Europe, and for a lesser salary than what their counterparts in Western Europe would get. The rest need not apply as Western Europe will put an average of five years delay on the movement of workers from Central and Eastern Europe westwards. This fact alone is a major disappointment, because the policy will in effect treat Eastern Europeans as second class citizens of Europe.

The high unemployment and low wages in Central and Eastern Europe might not be ameliorated in time to prevent a backlash of resentment there. It has in the former East Germany, which is witnessing a dangerous increase in the participation to neo-Nazi groups among the young and unemployed.

Overemphasizing the advantages of joining the EU and not clearly defining the possible negative consequences of it will lead to the realization of a misrepresentation later on. While in the long run the dream of a more affluent life will become reality for most after joining the EU, there could be a few nightmares before we actually get there.

Memo Merlino is a freelance writer living in Valmiera, Latvia.