Members find it hard to open their arms, and markets, to the countries of the former eastern bloc
The most remarkable piece of news to come out of Europe this year was released in March without ceremony by Eurostat, the statistical bureau of the European Union. Prague now has a higher GDP per capita than the European average, meaning it's a richer, more productive place than, for example, Calabria in Italy or Limousin in France.
Being among the five loveliest cities in the world helps: tourists flock there, and corporate executives don't mind being relocated there. The Czechs, like their German neighbours, are industrious, hard-working and ambitious. And the beer is good.
All the same, remember that 33 years ago Soviet tanks were rolling through Prague's streets. That it has forced its way back into the prosperous mainstream of European life is an achievement of resilience and renewal that we should all celebrate. The decision by the Irish earlier this month to reject the Nice Treaty, the pact designed to pave the way for enlargement of the European Union towards the East, was both shocking and disastrous.
The American politician Tip O'Neill used to observe that all politics are local. That was always true in the US. It is now true in Europe as well. As the EU becomes more and more important both politically and economically, it has become clear that there is no pan-European interest or duty to which politicians can appeal.
Right now, Europe looks to be grid-locked in a perpetual state of selfishness. It has only the dismal politics of the pork barrel, and the beggar-my-neighbour economics of the playground.
Until a way is found to change this dismal state of affairs, it is hard to imagine how the EU can be enlarged to the East.
The small problem of how the Nice Treaty gets ratified will no doubt be solved in due course: the Irish will no doubt come to change their minds. The bigger problem ' how to persuade voters there are greater European goals worth chasing even if they involve some short-term sacrifices ' remains completely intractable.
Few nations have benefited as mightily from EU as Ireland, which through a mixture of subsidies and access to a huge market, has risen from being a relatively backward, agricultural economy, to become one of Europe's richest countries. That was a fine achievement, of which the Irish can be proud: shame they ruined it by smashing up the ladder they just climbed.
But it is unfair to single out the Irish in particular.
The whole spectacle of enlargement has been a dismal parade of the narrow-minded, the greedy, the racist and the reactionary.
Take Germany. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been insisting, at the behest of his trade union backers, that there be a seven-year moratorium before East European labourers are allowed free access to Western Europe. They fear German factories will be swamped by cheap Polish and Hungarian workers. This is just one example of proposals marked only by shallow self-interest. There are many others.
Right now, Europe is constructing a massive conspiracy of betrayal against Eastern Europe. Despite the progress made by cities such as Prague, most of Europe east of the River Oder remains terribly poor.
But for Poland or Bulgaria read Spain, Portugal or Ireland a generation ago. With free movement of money and labour, the catch-up could begin. Without it, as the Irish or the Spanish should know, it could take decades if not centuries.
Already, Western Europe is facing an immigration crisis. Putting a group of poor countries next to a group of relatively rich countries causes inevitable frictions.
Poor people are attracted to well-paid jobs like nails to a magnet: putting some barbed wire and policeman between them won't make any difference. The old Communist regimes could hold their people back with machine guns. Nobody wants to go back to that. The result is a mass movement of illegal immigrants, many of them terribly exploited.
The liberal, humane response is to bring Eastern Europe into the EU as quickly as possible, to let capital and labour move where it wants to.
Fixing the Irish objections in a smoke-filled room is not the answer. Soon the Spanish will be worried about Hungarian wine, and the Greeks about Czech textiles, and the Italian about Polish salami.
Within nations, electorates are sometimes willing to forgo immediate short-term interest for the common good. Unless Europe's leaders can find a language with which to persuade their people of that imperative, then they might as well abandon the Union, and find some other way of ordering the continent's affairs.
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