A New and Improved Europe

Posted January 5, 2004

Categories: Articles, Europe

On May 1, the European Union nearly doubled its membership and barely anyone seemed to notice. Although ten countries joined the EU, adding 34 percent more territory and 28 percent more people to the now 25-state structure, news coverage was relatively scant. The world’s attention has been focused on Iraq and the run-up to the U.S. elections. Even Europeans – at least those already in the European Union – did not seem to rate Enlargement Day as especially significant. Yet, E-Day has enormous implications, positive and negative, for those on the edge of Europe and for regions further away such as East Asia.

In Slovenia, for instance, membership in the EU has been a national
preoccupation. A small alpine state with a tiny stretch of Adriatic
coastline, Slovenia became an independent country over a decade ago and is now the first of the former Yugoslav states to become part of the European Union. For Slovenes, the EU offers a vision of economic progress and liberal politics that has served as a counterpoint to the wars and economic dislocation that convulsed the Balkans in the 1990s. Subsidies offered to equalize economic disparities between accession countries and the EU are also attractive, although Slovenia is widely viewed as the best prepared of
the new EU members.

“After the splitting up of Yugoslavia, the EU is a kind of promised land,” Matjaz Stefancic told me on a recent visit to Slovenia. He is director of the European Commission’s information center in Slovenia’s capital,
Ljubljana. “This was the separating from the old history and starting
something new.”

But Europe means more than just a shiny new currency and representation in the European Parliament. In Stefancic’s personal opinion, “It is not a good thing to draw a sharp line between the past and the future. Slovenia was always part of Europe. But it was also always part of the Balkans.”

One of the most controversial events in recent Slovenian history is the elimination virtually overnight of the rights of citizenship to 18,000
people living in the country. This happened in 1992 when Slovenia became independent. Although the government granted citizenship to over 100,000 non-Slovenes, many slipped through the cracks, particularly Roma (or Gypsies) and people born in other former republics of Yugoslavia. “One out of every 100 people in Slovenia lost residence and status,” sociologist Gorazd Kovacic told me. “People lost the right to work, to pensions, to health insurance. They could be expelled. Families were broken up.”

These 18,000 people, known as the “erased,” lost their rights because of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. In 2002, when the full scope of this violation became widely known, Slovenians were not particularly outraged. In fact, says Jasminka Dedic, a human rights researcher, Slovenians expressed outrage at the “erased” themselves for not becoming more thoroughly Slovenized. “Everyone is for human rights and tolerance, but when it comes to certain vulnerable groups – Roma, Muslims –
then the public becomes opposite. Public opinion polls show that a high percentage of people heredon’t want homosexuals or Roma as their neighbors. People think only about their own human rights, not the human rights of others.”

The architects of European integration have tried hard to portray the
process as inclusive and tolerant. The slogan for the enlargement process has been “United in Diversity.” So it would seem that the issue of the “erased” is part of Slovenia’s past, its “bad” Balkan identity as opposed to its “good” European identity.

Sociologist Jelka Zorn disagrees. The issue of the “erased,” she told
me, “is very European in character because Europe is closing itself off. It doesn’t want immigration any more. It is a Fortress Europe.
Immigrants to Europe are facing a bureaucratic exclusion.” Indeed,
anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in Europe, often fostered by far right-wing parties. According to one widely reported European Union survey, one out of every three Europeans admits to being “very racist.” In its eagerness to become “European,” the Slovenian government proved that it could be just as xenophobic as its counterparts in the West.

The European model of integration is much discussed in Asia. In comparison to the American model – the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – the European approach to economic cooperation appears much more reasonable. It is based on raising social and economic standards to higher levels rather than the “race to the bottom” of the American model.

Asian companies are eyeing the larger European market with great
anticipation. Hyundai, for instance, recently built a plant in Slovakia to avoid EU import duties. Asian governments, meanwhile, are hoping to attract more foreign direct investment from Europe.

A larger, stronger Europe represents a critical counterbalance to the
United States. The EU has endorsed a more diplomatic approach to “rogue” states such as Iran and North Korea. With its more cautious policy on genetically modified organisms, the EU has directly challenged the United States. South Korea and Japan, long tethered across the Pacific to the United States, would do well to turn more toward Europe. A rail line stretching from London all the way down the Korean peninsula by way of the relinked North-South tracks offers an unprecedented opportunity to create an economically powerful Eurasia.

But even as East Asia eyes the new Europe, it must not skip over all of those who have been left outside – entire countries such as the former Soviet republics and many individuals like the “erased” in Slovenia. The same processes of exclusion that have accompanied Euro-integration can just as easily apply to Asian goods and Asian people.

Munhwa Ilbo, June 29, 2004

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