East is slowly meeting West in Europe. Nick Holdsworth looks at the implications of integration
In the old medieval market town of Brno in southeast Moravia, free buses ferry people to a newly opened American-style shopping mall and multi-screen cinema complex built on what had been cabbage fields until last year.
Outside Prague in the heart of the Czech Republic's Bohemia region, a massive British superstore employs young men and women skilled at roller-skating to dash to find goods for shoppers confused by the endless choice and huge scale of the place.
Ten years ago a brutal attack by the Czechoslovakian police on student demonstrators marking the 50th anniversary of the Nazi repression of academia sparked an uprising rapidly named the Velvet Revolution because of its lack of bloodshed.
Communist regimes fell throughout central and eastern Europe in 1989, heralding the end of the cold war and the rebirth of democracy. Today, countries that were the bulwark of the Warsaw Pact are queueing up to join the European Union.
A glance at the economic and infrastructure developments in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and other countries of the region during the past ten years suggests that EU enlargement has already arrived in spirit, if not in actuality.
But the notion that joining the EU club is only about the
eastward march of the Brussels ideal, a simple matter of extending the current benefits to 12 new petitioners, is not universally shared.
A British Council-sponsored conference for academics, civil servants, political sociologists, journalists, writers and government ministers from more than 20 European countries, to discuss the impact on Europe of the accession of countries from the Baltics to the borders of the Balkans, was held last month in Prague to consider the wider picture.
"The Westward Enlargement of Central Europe" focused on the impact differing concepts of ethnicity, citizenship, nationalism and sovereignty in the accession countries might have on Europe, as well as different interpretations and attitudes toward the role of law.
George Schopflin, Jean Monnet professor of political science at University College London, led the discussion on nationalism. He said it is essential to understand the way in which time metaphorically stood still in the communist East until 1989.
He pointed out the "huge psychological burden" for people faced with the challenge of what to do with their communist past; what to do with people who served the old regimes; and how to value achievements, laws, degrees and diplomas granted in that time.
He said that the Czechs had an intolerably closed society imposed on them, to a far greater extent than in Poland and Hungary. He added that within a few years of the revolution the Czechs had split from
their Slovak neighbours and
created a completely new country.
This fragile sense of nationalism in the Czech Republic, coupled with growing intolerance of minorities such as the Roma (gypsies), threatens to derail hopes of being among the first wave of new EU candidates.
Vaclav Klaus, the Czech opposition leader, was hailed in the early 1990s for his enthusiasm for Thatcher-style economic reforms. But his failures earned him the lasting opprobrium of President Havel, a nationalist who is already making anti-EU noises.
The construction of the wall
separating unemployed Roma families from others in the northern Bohemian industrial town of Usti Nad Labem has drawn highly critical comments from the EU, as has the slow pace of the government's implementation of key judicial and home affairs reforms demanded for entry to Europe.
As Professor Schopflin put it, the assumption that EU enlargement purely means the expansion of a homogenous set of codes and rules to new entrants becomes less tenable the larger the union.
Harmonising Europe's laws is likely to become increasingly difficult as the union expands, speakers at the conference, said.
Notions that "western law was good; eastern bad" is a clear danger to be avoided. Harmonisation does not have to mean homogenisation and commissioners in charge of EU expansion needed to understand that in countries with postwar traditions of authoritarianism, attitudes towards the law and knowledge of principles such as judicial review of administrative decisions were not the same as in the West.
There were practical challenges as well as conceptual challenges to enlarging the union: Poland's highly successful and beneficial policy of open borders with its eastern neighbours, allowing the free movement of labour, will not survive it joining the EU.
If the EU becomes, as one speaker suggested, the "functional equivalent of the Hapsburg Empire for defusing ethnic and national tensions", the problem of tensions with those countries left out of the "empire" will remain.
A largely unexplored topic - central and eastern Europe's attitudes towards Germany - was touched on. Fear of German economic power, already being felt in, for example, Polish former Eastern Prussia and the Czech Sudetenland, where descendants of former landowners dream of regaining their estates, is balanced by the knowledge that Germany is now part of a supranational whole.
"The countries seeking EU membership all fear Russia far more than Germany," one speaker noted, touching on a shadow hanging over the longer-term future of European expansion: what to do when the EU's borders reach Russia.
Nick Holdsworth is a journalist specialising in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.