Dreaming of rescue

  • 2002-02-07
We're all used to surprises from the European Union. It opened enlargement negotiations with six countries in October 1998, then broadened the field to 12 a year later. Squabbling between member states about everything from subsidies to monetary union are run of the mill.

So the latest European Commission bombshell, a plan to water down agricultural and regional aid for the 10 applicant countries set to join the EU by 2004, comes simply as a disappointment.

In the showcase capitals of Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, newly refurbished hotels, good restaurants, flashy old towns and multilingual greetings charm diplomats, tourists and businesspeople.

But the countryside is poor. Rusting equipment on many small farms hasn't been updated for decades. Factories, roads and apartment blocks are tatty and neglected.

In villages and country towns, people are weighed down, as they are in Russia, by unemployment and alcoholism.

Once-bustling local communities are suffering from depopulation. The "palaces of culture" popular in the Soviet era have closed, and youth centers and cinemas battle for survival. Families, many of whom live on a couple of hundred dollars a month, have nothing to do and nowhere to go.

There are big, and growing, differences in wealth within existing EU member states such as Spain and Britain. But in the Baltic states the gap between the small, wealthy minority and the masses of provincial poor is alarming.

Countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece have benefited from years of EU hand-outs. Income per person in these countries, the European Commission says, has risen from 68 percent to 79 percent in the past decade - although this was bound to happen anyway in a free-trade area shared with richer countries.

Now it's time for the bigger recipients of agricultural and regional subsidies to stop grumbling and help bear the costs of further EU enlargement. Having done very well out of EU charity, Spain, Portugal and Greece should now be charitable in turn.

It's time for the EU to stop making up its rules as it goes along. It has made a commitment to welcome in the long-suppressed nations of Central and Eastern Europe. It has a moral responsibility to do so. And it should go about it fairly.