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EU goes east to grow big

Brussels, April 29 (Reuters): The European Union will get 10 new member states on Saturday in a historic eastward expansion that will change the face of Europe forever.

The biggest ever enlargement, extending the 15-nation west European club across the former Iron Curtain and deep into former communist eastern Europe, is a political triumph but will put strain on the bloc’s creaking institutions.

After the fireworks and champagne at parties from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, a political hangover awaits. Enlargement will hugely widen the gap between the richest and poorest members and force the EU to change its policies and priorities in ways that some old member states will find deeply uncomfortable, but newcomers will find frustratingly slow.

French President Jacques Chirac, long the least enthusiastic EU leader about enlargement, hailed the event today as a giant step that would make the bloc with 450 million citizens a global economic power producing a quarter of the world’s wealth.

“The dream of its founding fathers, first among which were the French and Germans, of a generous utopia arising from the ashes of war and barbarism — all that is going to become a reality,” Chirac rhapsodised.

Yet the new members are set to accentuate the transformation of a Union long shaped by France into more of a free-market, low-tax, lightly regulated, English-speaking and pro-American bloc than either Paris or Berlin would like.

“The EU will change much more than either the old or new members expect or have prepared for,” forecast Heather Grabbe of the London-based Centre for European Reform in an incisive new pamphlet analysing The Constellations of Europe.

That could trigger a backlash, both among grumpy citizens of the old EU fearing for their jobs, living standards and benefits, and among east Europeans disenchanted at the absence of an instant “feel-good factor”.

Institutional reforms in a first EU constitution due to be concluded next month will be too feeble to cope with the “big bang” expansion, and “a period of perpetual revolution.…may well continue for the next decade”, Grabbe argued.

All eight east European newcomers — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — look to the US, not the EU, as the bedrock of their security, in part because of vocal backing from Washington during the Cold War. Their support for the US invasion of Iraq last year highlighted that fact, drawing a blunt rebuke from Chirac.

The new members, which have implemented painful structural reforms since the fall of the Berlin Wall, are likely to press for economic deregulation, reform of the EU budget and more permeable borders within the bloc, Grabbe said.

But only Poland, the biggest newcomer with significant armed forces, will actively support a global EU foreign policy.

The others are more likely to join the majority of small states in the EU who seek a strong European Commission to counter-balance the power of the biggest member states, and prefer to see the EU as a regional rather than a world power.

On one point most experts agree: the newcomers will not vote as a block in the EU except to seek greater spending on their poorest regions.

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