An emerging wider Europe

The Washington Times
March 23, 2004, Tuesday, Final Edition

An emerging wider Europe;
Democracy and free markets make their impact

By Tod Lindberg, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia

This “New Europe” capital on the banks of the Danube is rapidly
emerging as a crossroads of Central and Eastern Europe. I first
started to get the point as I was getting on a plane a week ago bound
for Frankfurt, Germany, en route to a conference in Bratislava of
prime ministers and NGOs, mainly from countries about to join the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, on the
subject of “Towards a Wider Europe.”

At the gate, I ran into a former colleague of mine, an expert on
taxation and budget matters. He asked me where I was going from
Frankfurt, and I told him. So was he, he said. Baffled, I asked,
you’re going to the NATO conference? Not exactly his field. No, he
said, he was going to a meeting on international tax policy with a
bunch of EU finance ministers, at which he was speaking. And he
added, who would have thought there would be one major international
conference going on in Bratislava, let alone two?

Bratislava has a number of things going for it: Its old city is
charming in its own right. It’s close to a major international
airport, Vienna, about 45 minutes away, and soon will be
psychologically closer still, when Slovakia becomes an EU member on
May 1, and the passport checks at the border disappear. The
government has made a healthy measure of enlightened public-policy
choices, including a low and flat tax that is likely to generate huge
investment. And diplomatically, it punches above its weight, as
witness the conference I was attending.

We are entering on a couple of watershed months for European and
trans-Atlantic institutions. Next week, seven government chiefs will
be in Washington for the purpose of depositing their ratification
documents for accession to NATO. And the European Union will welcome
10 new members a month later. It is certainly worth worrying about an
emerging rift between the United States and Europe. But one should
not lose sight of the really quite amazing exercise in
institution-building that has been going on over the past 10 years.

This process is not, however – or should not be – at an end. The
simple reason is that while the strides have been tremendous, the job
is not yet finished. Too much of Europe is still out in the cold:
riven by conflict, beset by governments that range from inefficient
and corrupt to much worse [in the case of Belarus’ Alexander
Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, a tyrant of the first rank], or
simply not far enough along on the path of reform to have won a place
in the European Union or NATO.

One of the most encouraging signs is that, overwhelmingly, those
countries newly joining the institutions of the West have been
committed to serving as advocates for those aspiring to do so. This
was readily apparent after the 1999 round of NATO enlargement, when
new members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic worked to advance
the case of the so-called V-10, the 10 countries hoping to join in
the next round [seven of which became members]. Now, successful V-10
members such as Slovakia are taking a lead role on behalf of the
three left out and others possibly still to come.

The work that needs to be done is considerable. Democracy in the
Balkans is still very much a work in progress, especially with the
alarming flare-up of ethnic violence in Kosovo last week. Slovenia,
the lone V-10 country not participating in the Bratislava conference,
last week welcomed the odious Mr. Lukashenko on a visit, defying an
EU ban [Slovenia not yet technically being a member]. Cynicism of
that order, though rare, is certainly unhelpful, especially when
courageous Belarus dissidents, such as Irina Krasovskaya, are trying
to mobilize to bring to their country the freedoms Slovenia seems to
take for granted.

The Black Sea region features both the lingering dispute between
Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as the more hopeful case of Georgia.
Georgia’s new president, Mikhail Saakashvili, did a star turn at the
podium, discarding his prepared remarks and instead describing the
remarkable few days he had just been through at home. A local
strongman sought to prevent the president’s entry into “his”
territory. After a tense standoff and some tough talk and action from
Mr. Saakashvili, the strongman backed down. Mr. Saakashvili went in –
and was greeted by thousands of supporters cheering and waving roses,
the symbol of Georgia’s “Rose Revolution.” “Within two days the whole
population was mobilized,” he said. “Shoot at us if you want, we
won’t stop … Freedom can always defeat violence.”

How wide is “wider Europe”? That’s hard to say. But the message out
of Slovakia is that we will all be better off if we keep probing to
find out, rather than draw new lines marking an “in” group and an
“out” group. Though it may take some getting used to, Bratislava is
actually at the very heart of Europe. The map doesn’t lie, and
neither do the political realities.

* Tod Lindberg is the editor of Policy Review magazine and a research
fellow at the Hoover Institution. His column appears on Tuesdays.
E-mail: [email protected]