The European Union expanded from 15 to 25 members Saturday in what is being hailed
as the formal end of the continent's 20th Century division between East and West.
But the celebrations carry an undertone of trepidation and apathy.
Prague at EU expansion
Eight of the incoming EU members are former communist countries, where people
are worried about steep price increases for consumer goods and also that their
fragile business sectors will be overwhelmed by competition from the West.
In the wealthier states of the West, the fears revolve around loss of jobs
to a westward migration of low-wage workers, as well as the transfer of western
jobs to the new EU members, where labor costs are less than half what they
are in the West.
There are also fears among current member states that the newcomers will be too
difficult to digest and that the effort to narrow the income gap between East
and West will cost too much. And, in some countries such as France, there are
worries that, with 25 countries sitting at the EU table, decision making will
become bogged down and Paris' cherished dream of an ever-closer union - in which
it has a decisive voice - could be slipping away.
In the East, too, there are concerns that countries that have re-established
their national identity more than a decade after freeing themselves from the
domination of Moscow may again find it subsumed under the weight of bureaucratic
directives from Brussels.
Taking the long view, Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs says the only
way a country like his can make its weight felt is by belonging to the EU.
"As a member of a 25-member strong community the GDP [gross domestic product]
of which is equal to that of the United States and which will be the largest
single market in the world, in this organization, in this integration, Hungary
has a good chance of implementing its interests," he said. "So I think that
there is no argument against, but there are many arguments for, the accession
of Hungary to the European Union."
There will be celebrations in the streets of Vilnius and Valetta and quieter
observances in some Western capitals. But the EU's expansion has been such
a long and drawn-out process, requiring so many sacrifices and painful reforms
from the new member states, that the long-awaited day of Europe's unification
appears to be almost anti-climactic.