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European Union Expands from 15 to 25 Members - 2004-04-30

The European Union expanded from 15 to 25 members Saturday in what is being hailed as the formal end of the continent's 20th Century division between East and West. But the celebrations carry an undertone of trepidation and apathy.

Eight of the incoming EU members are former communist countries, where people are worried about steep price increases for consumer goods and also that their fragile business sectors will be overwhelmed by competition from the West.

In the wealthier states of the West, the fears revolve around loss of jobs to a westward migration of low-wage workers, as well as the transfer of western jobs to the new EU members, where labor costs are less than half what they are in the West.

There are also fears among current member states that the newcomers will be too difficult to digest and that the effort to narrow the income gap between East and West will cost too much. And, in some countries such as France, there are worries that, with 25 countries sitting at the EU table, decision making will become bogged down and Paris' cherished dream of an ever-closer union - in which it has a decisive voice - could be slipping away.

In the East, too, there are concerns that countries that have re-established their national identity more than a decade after freeing themselves from the domination of Moscow may again find it subsumed under the weight of bureaucratic directives from Brussels.

Taking the long view, Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs says the only way a country like his can make its weight felt is by belonging to the EU.

"As a member of a 25-member strong community the GDP [gross domestic product] of which is equal to that of the United States and which will be the largest single market in the world, in this organization, in this integration, Hungary has a good chance of implementing its interests," he said. "So I think that there is no argument against, but there are many arguments for, the accession of Hungary to the European Union."

There will be celebrations in the streets of Vilnius and Valetta and quieter observances in some Western capitals. But the EU's expansion has been such a long and drawn-out process, requiring so many sacrifices and painful reforms from the new member states, that the long-awaited day of Europe's unification appears to be almost anti-climactic.