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In E.U. Debate, a Clash of Old and New

By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

STRASBOURG, France, May 16 -- From his seat in the cavernous chamber of the European Parliament, Hungarian legislator Csaba Sandor Tabajdi listened impatiently Tuesday as colleagues advocated delaying Romania's entry into the European Union because of the country's discrimination against its Gypsy minority.

Finally, Tabajdi took the floor.

"I don't want to single anyone out -- like France," Tabajdi said. "If they wanted to join the E.U. today, they wouldn't be accepted as members" because of their treatment of minorities.

Tuesday's three-hour debate over corrupt judges in Bulgaria and lack of minority rights in Romania exposed the fault lines between the old European Union members, fearful of losing jobs and influence, and the emerging nations of Eastern Europe that view membership as a major advantage in the globalized economy.

Across much of old Europe, anxieties are mounting over whether the half-century-old bloc is taking in new member states too quickly. Two years ago, 10 more countries -- many of them former Soviet republics or satellites -- joined, bringing the total to 25. Now Romania and Bulgaria have been promised entry; Turkey has been promised consideration. Croatia and Serbia are candidates, while Ukraine has expressed a desire to join.

The addition of Bulgaria and Romania would stretch the boundaries of the union from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea and push the population to nearly 470 million.

The European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, voted Tuesday to give Bulgaria and Romania until October to make strides in addressing corruption, food safety, agricultural and other problems, or risk having their tentative January 2007 entry pushed back a year. Bulgaria was singled out as having rampant corruption in its judicial system, which has allowed organized crime to proliferate.

While many of the Bulgarian and Romanian shortcomings in meeting E.U. standards are severe, many E.U. politicians and analysts said the debate over delaying their entrance also reflects general apprehension in the old member states.

In commemorating Europe Day -- the annual celebration of the union -- last week, European Parliament President Josep Borrell acknowledged that officials "underestimated the unease of our fellow citizens" when drafting an E.U. constitution that was rejected last year by voters in France and the Netherlands.

He said debate should now center on how to "relaunch the dynamics" of the European Union. The "period of reflection" that followed the constitutional defeats, he said, should now be followed by a "period of proposals." One French lawmaker recently called for a "timeout" on all new memberships.

As the European Union has been expanding, France has grappled with riots in suburban communities where French-born children of immigrants suffer unemployment rates as high as 40 percent. Demonstrators opposing a new youth employment law filled its streets week after week until the law was withdrawn.

"France is already having a hard time solving its immigration and unemployment problems," said Chantal Berge, a 46-year-old homemaker from central France, echoing the views of many French people. "I think the accession of Bulgaria and Romania can only make the situation worse. If we open our borders to such countries, immigration will rise even more. Whose jobs are they going to take? I'm worried. I'd like to understand how we will benefit from that."

In older E.U. nations -- including France, the Netherlands and Belgium -- rising racial tensions, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have accompanied an increase in immigrant and Muslim populations.

Opposition to European expansion -- commonly called enlargement fatigue -- is driven as much by concern over economics and jobs as fear of losing national identities, according to many analysts.

In France and other countries that were founders of the E.U., many people feel that the bloc is "getting out of control -- out of their control," said Michael Emerson, senior research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.

A recent poll taken for the union showed that the countries most opposed to expansion, primarily the older members, also were the most fearful of globalization. Newer member states, in contrast, viewed expansion as a greater opportunity for their countries and Europe as a whole to compete in the global market.

The difference in attitudes may be explained by E.U. statistics showing that between 1997 and 2005, the new members of the union had economic growth averaging 3.75 percent a year, while the older 15 members sustained growth of 2.2 percent.

In its Europe Day assessment of itself, the European Commission came together in principle, stating that "enlargement has acted as a face of modernization in the E.U., a timely force given the sudden emergence on the world scene of China and India."

Samir Ammad, a 29-year-old Paris bartender whose father was born in Algeria, said he sees little of that modernization trickling down to average citizens like himself. "I'm afraid the enlargement is more positive to big corporations and business owners who get cheaper labor, than to regular people like us," Ammad said.

Researcher Corinne Gavard in Paris contributed to this report.

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