The European Union is preparing for a historic expansion east and south, with its leaders scheduled to issue invitations at a December summit to as many as 10 countries that the group says meet its requirements for democracy, free markets, human rights and rule of law.
But while governments trumpet the benefits of EU membership and eagerly await formal invitations, most are finding their populations only lukewarm to the idea. For now, public opinion polls show that only four of the 10 countries have a clear majority of citizens in favor of joining.
The opponents include people such as Ivo Kubicek, 49, a commercial farmer in the village of Olsany, in the eastern Czech Republic. He worries that the new members would get short shrift on European farm aid and fears over-regulation from EU headquarters in Brussels. "It's bad the European Union is already imposing various quotas and regulations on us," he said. "Bureaucratic procedures, name restriction -- it's nonsense!"
Then there's Vaclav Novotny, 62, a retiree who spends most afternoons swilling pints of Pilsner Urquell at a long wooden table at the Hippopotamus Bar in Prague's historic center. He is worried about the price of his beer going up when the Czech Republic joins the union. And he, too, hates the idea of being ordered around by Brussels. "If I wanted to join anything in the West, I would have defected," he said.
And there's Barbara Bulanova, 20, a fresh-faced college student studying library science. She sees advantages in joining the EU, such as the right to move to other EU countries to work. But she has doubts as well. "Something small inside of me . . . wants to be independent," she said. "Maybe we will lose something by joining other countries. Not our generation, but the next generation, will lose some of our identity."
That kind of ambivalence underscores how the construction of a wider, unified Europe, a dream of European leaders for four decades, has been driven by the ruling class, with the public sometimes pulled along reluctantly. The skepticism comes out not only in random interviews, but in data from opinion polls.
In March, the Eurobarometer poll devised by the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, showed that in the 10 countries likely to get invitations in December -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Malta, Cyprus, Slovenia and Slovakia -- a bare majority of 52 percent of the people thought joining was a good idea, compared with 16 percent who thought it was a bad idea. The rest were undecided or gave no opinion.
The poll results are even more striking when viewed country by country. Hungary emerges as by far the most pro-EU of the 10 aspirants, with 65 percent of those polled saying EU membership is a good thing. But the number is 52 percent in Poland, 43 percent in the Czech Republic, 41 percent in Slovenia, 38 percent in Malta, 35 percent in Estonia and 32 percent in Latvia.
This is not just of academic concern, because of the 10 countries, all but Cyprus say they will put EU membership to their citizens in referendums.
Ironically, public support for membership is higher in three countries that have no chance of joining this time around -- Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.
The new members will get aid from Brussels and international prestige. But they will also have to open their markets to competition from other EU states and abide by the group's voluminous regulations, covering things as diverse as food safety and human rights.
The reasons for ambivalence vary. Some people fear rising prices, others fear waves of foreign goods and still others fear an erosion of national sovereignty so soon after the end of Soviet domination. And 57 years the defeat of Nazi Germany, many people worry that EU membership will open the doors to Germans to dominate their countries economically.
"These are young democracies," said Daniel Keohane, a researcher with the Center for European Reform in London. "It's not that long that they've had their independence, so it's natural that some people would be fearful."
There is also a general concern that new members will have second-class status. As Kubicek, the Czech farmer, put it: "In the European Union, some countries will get more financing and some will get less. It's like a father with 15 sons, and 10 of them get a dowry and the others don't."
Kubicek runs a 400-acre farm divided among three people. His three modern tractors were purchased from Germany, and his records are kept on a computer in his office. He argues that under conditions of fairness, he can compete with any farmer in Western Europe. "But how can I compete when I don't get the financial support that they are getting?" he asked.
For now, the EU is offering new members just one-quarter of the agricultural support that current members get, with the entire farm subsidy program set to be reviewed for a possible phasing out in 2006.
"I believe all 10 candidate countries will get in 2004, but I'm not sure whether they can all stand the pressure, and whether the European Union can survive it," Kubicek said. "There could be a danger in Europe if the money is not released to the new members." Otherwise, he predicted, "the European Union will not work, it will breed bad blood, and some countries will want to get out of it."
Novotny, the retiree, also doubts the union can survive, which is why he opposes joining. "I don't see any practical advantages," he said. There have been so many unions. Other than the United States, they all fell apart and there was bloodshed. Look at the Soviet Union. It's my personal opinion -- maybe for young people, it's different."
Novotny recalled that 20 Czech korunas used to buy five beers and now won't buy even one. And he's worried that if the Czech Republic adopts the euro, the currency that 12 EU countries use, prices will soar again.
For younger people, the answers do seem different, suggesting a strong generational divide. College students in particular see EU membership as opening a continent-wide job market.
"My opinion is that Czechs are very xenophobic and very proud of their nation, and 70 percent would not want to enter the EU," said Eva Trundova, an architecture student in her twenties. "I think the accession to the EU has both pros and cons. But there are more positive things. We were told at school that with the EU, in the future it will be easier to find jobs."
Officials here say it will be difficult, but not impossible, to counter enough of the skepticism to win a referendum on membership next year.
So far, much of the Czech government's focus has been on meeting the criteria for membership -- restructuring the farm system, bringing the budget deficit into line and trying to clean up corruption that officials concede is still rampant.
Before the referendum -- planned for May or June, Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said -- the government will launch a campaign to win over public sympathies. "We will have to be especially concentrated on the young people," he said.
With Euro-skepticism running high, EU officials have asked Hungary, the most pro-Europe of the group, to hold its referendum first, in hopes of building momentum for acceptance. "We said 'all right' because public support is very high," said Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs in an interview in Budapest. "It's certainly around a two-thirds majority, so we are prepared to go first." The referendum is tentatively scheduled for March.
But if many Eastern countries are facing public hostility, Hungary's government faces the opposite concern: sky-high expectations. Many Hungarians seem to believe that joining the EU will cure all ills.
Robert Pap, 31, is a member of the minority Roma, or Gypsy, group. He is unemployed and lives in one of Budapest's poorest neighborhoods. "I heard there will be more jobs," he said, sitting on a stoop, "and a better life for the poor people, not just the rich. And also the housing problems for the poor will be solved." He said he was hopeful but added, "We don't believe in fairy tales."
Kovacs, the foreign minister, said the government has a selling job to do while keeping expectations in check. "People are thinking in black and white categories," he said. " . . . We want to have a campaign, to let people know what the EU is all about."