TCS Daily

In Search of 'Community'

By Kevin Hassett - September 10, 2002 12:00 AM

KRYNICA, Poland - In the final day of meetings in Krynica, delegates met to discuss a broad range of topics, but the majority of meetings, and the lion's share of the lunch conversation focused on the likely impact of EU membership.

There are currently 13 candidate countries, and the majority of them are countries that only recently emerged from communist rule. These ten include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Slovakia. These countries have undergone remarkable changes in the past 15 years. Will the next ten transform them even more?

My conversations with government leaders lead me to believe that there is an appropriate skepticism among the candidate countries concerning the intrusive regulation and bureaucracy of the EU. There is genuine concern that socialist bureaucrats will partly turn back the clock to communism. It was, for example, almost impossible to make it through a session without hearing at least one mention of the fact that the EU has strict regulations concerning even the curvature of bananas (these are designed, of course, to aid French colonies in the Caribbean). What other flights of fancy might await members in the future? There was clearly a great deal of concern.

So why join? On this, after seeing the gamut of stories, one can only conclude that the economic arguments are secondary. What really matters is security and attachment. The word "community" is the real attraction.

Which makes perfect sense. Many of the Krynica participants were citizens that rose to adulthood yearning to join the West, and cursing President Roosevelt for abandoning them after the Second World War. Many of the brave men and women risked everything to end communism, and still fear that it might return. Those fears are not far-fetched. In Poland, for example, the ruling party has strong ties to the former communist state. EU membership is the fastest and easiest way to bind Central Europeans once and for all to the West.

This longing for membership was apparent in the voice of even the harshest EU critics at the conference. More than once, the conversation turned to whether the same objectives might be achieved through NAFTA membership. The support crossed every political line at the conference, suggesting to me that it reflects the views of the electorate as well. It is hard to see how membership will run into political difficulties in the candidate countries, despite the protestations of opponents.

But what will their entry mean? It is on this question that the delegates were the most impressive. The entry of the 13 candidate countries is not just a story of emerging economies handing the keys to their control panels to the French. To the contrary, the new entrants recognize that they are joining an organization that reaches collective decisions through a voting process that grants votes to countries based on their population. While there are currently about 370 million EU citizens, there are about 170 million people in the candidate countries. Such a large block of new votes could significantly alter the future dynamic of Europe. Indeed, I left Krynica with a mental picture of central Europeans as being politically similar in some respects to the Cuban community in the United States. Nothing imbues the soul with a belief in the power of free market economics quite so much as life under communism.

So EU membership is a burden, because it will festoon emerging economies with some senseless regulations, but it is also a challenge. The new members may well have the political power to be a new and needed force of deregulation in the European political theater. The preparations for the battle are already under way. Libertarian activists have begun to form American style think tanks - like the "Adam Smith Center" in Krakow, and there is great promise that the scholars there will provide policy makers with the intellectual fodder they need to start their deregulatory cannons firing. If they succeed, then the entry of the central Europeans in the EU may be the best thing that ever happened to the beleaguered citizens of Europe, both east and west.

Even if they do not succeed, and the EU spreads intrusive regulatory tentacles to the east, it is nonetheless likely that EU membership will serve the useful purpose of putting a limit on how regulated these formerly communist countries can become, even if the far left regains full political control. After years of life under the communists, it is easy to see how typical voters might find that attractive.



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