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EU Expansion Brings Expectations, Fears for New Members - 2004-05-01

Ten new members - mostly former communist countries - are joining the European Union on Saturday in the bloc's biggest-ever expansion. For the newcomers, EU membership is the best available guarantee of peace, freedom and future prosperity. But they are also aware that they have to work hard to catch up with the wealthier countries to the west.

Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Latvia, was occupied by the former Soviet Union for 50 years and thus cut off from the rest of Europe.

It has labored hard to overcome the legacy of those years, represented by a crumbling infrastructure, environmental pollution and the corruption associated with the old Soviet-style bureaucracy.

With one of the lowest per capita incomes of the new EU members, it raced to catch up and, last year, its economy grew by nearly nine percent, largely due to massive foreign investment spurred by a low corporate tax rate.

Overseeing that process was Finance Minister Dalia Grybauskaite, who also imposed tight controls on government spending and sold off inefficient state-owned companies. She says her fellow-citizens think Lithuania's entry into the EU will boost living standards and open up new markets for Lithuanian products.

"For ordinary Lithuanians, the hopes are, of course, historically based on looking for political security, economic security and a more prosperous life," she said. "I think, in the near future, we don't fear too much and, for ordinary people, they do not yet know what to fear. And I'm happy about that because I think we feared so much in our history and we have gone through such difficult times that we don't think that the European Union will be something to fear seriously about."

Ms. Grybauskaite says the only thing that seems to bother Lithuanians is EU bureaucracy, with its requirements that the new member states measure up to often rigid standards in such areas as food safety and pollution controls.

That is a criticism that is common elsewhere in the Baltic States. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga recently told reporters in Brussels that EU regulations are cumbersome but are outweighed by her country's access to a single market of 455 million consumers.

"Certainly, we are gaining this very large market which actually will now be larger than the United States in terms of numbers of inhabitants," said Ms. Vike-Freiberga. "The losses are that this market, in order to have access to it, we have to comply with this enormous body of severe restrictions and severe requirements."

Polls show that most citizens of the Baltic States believe EU membership will bring them better living standards. But Audrius Matonis, the chief editor of the Baltic News Service in Lithuania, says there is also widespread concern that prices will rise.

"The main fear is that some prices, for food, let's say, for petroleum, for cigarettes, will rise," he said. "So that's why some groups of people are buying even now sugar, salt, some other products, because of the fears that the prices are going up."

And those fears are not limited to the Baltic countries. Lena Kolarska Bobinska, who heads the Committee on Public Affairs, a research organization in Warsaw, says Poland, too, has been hit by fears of price rises.

"Suddenly there is gossip that the price of sugar will go up," she said. "So, like in the period of communism, everybody is running to the shop and buying sugar and hiding it because the price will be bigger. Even some marketing companies are building their market campaigns on that fear, saying 'were you told that the prices will go down?' And there is a big question mark suggesting that prices will not go down, that you were cheated, that prices will go up."

But Ms. Bobinska says those fears have still not dissuaded Poles from believing that they must continue on the road of EU membership, even if they realize it will not always be a joyful ride.

Experts say any price increases will be minor, and will likely be followed by wage increases in the years to come.

Pawel Swieboda, the head of the Polish foreign ministry's European Integration department, says change always provokes fear and unease.

"The fears concern mainly the competitive pressures, which will come as we join the European Union," said Pawel Swieboda. "Obviously, the economies of the current member states are much more advanced than our own. Our own is really dynamic. We're growing at five percent, but, still, there is a catch-up process to go through. And the sooner we do it, the better."

But Mr. Swieboda argues that any momentary dislocations are far outweighed by what EU membership will bring Poland after decades of war, communist domination and the painful adjustment to a market economy.

"There is certainly a great expectation that by returning to Europe - because that's the way we prefer to see it - we will enhance our own stability, we will enhance our economic growth," he said. "And there is something more spiritual, I suppose, that it will enhance our sense of belonging and that identity-wise, we'll find ourselves in a much different situation, in a situation of certainty."

So, Europe has finally bridged the divide caused by the 20th Century's hot and cold wars, and most of its countries are united in what the EU likes to call 'a community of shared values.' Now the hard part begins, making sure that EU membership delivers prosperity to what are still relatively poor countries, and narrows the gap between them and their richer western partners.