It has been six months since the Czech Republic and nine other states, most of them in Central and Eastern Europe, entered the European Union. But have these new bonds brought the countries of Central Europe closer together? At the end of last week Prague hosted a conference "Without Borders" to look at how partnership is working and could be improved between the countries of the region. Maida Agovic has this report.
On 11 December 1989, Josef Ratzenboeck, one of the participants of the Conference "Without Borders", cut the barbed wire demarcating the border between Austria and Czechoslovakia. At that time he was the governor of the province of Upper Austria, and, as he says, could not have foreseen the immense consequences of this symbolic act of cutting through the Iron Curtain. Today, fifteen years later, all Austria's eastern neighbors are in the European Union.
Another participant in the conference was the former dissident and later Czechoslovak foreign minister, Jiri Dienstbier, who was a key figure on the Central European diplomatic scene in the early days after the fall of communism. Six months into EU membership he thinks that Czechs and people in the neighboring countries have not yet understood the new opportunities that EU membership is offering them:
"Opinion polls in Central and Eastern European countries suggest that, when asked what they think they can offer to the European Union, the majority of people answer 'a cheap labor force.' That means that we haven't had the chance so far to experience the immense possibilities that the EU membership is offering us, and I hope that this will change very soon."
Despite the apparent success of European integration, the enlarged Union is already faced with important new problems and challenges. Mr. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Polish politician and the first democratically elected Prime Minister in that country after the fall of communism, explains:
"The first big problem that the EU has to deal with is the internal disagreement over some core questions. The best example is the war in Iraq. Another great problem is the ratification of the new EU constitution, because not everybody in the 25 member states agrees with all aspects of the draft proposal. The question of European identity is also an important issue at the moment, especially in light of further enlargement into Turkey. And finally, the issue of unity concerning the European Common Foreign and Security Policy has to be solved. The European Union must learn to have one voice on these important policy questions."
"Turks are a European nation. Just because it is a country with a Muslim population it doesn't mean that it is an Islamic state. We should not reject Turkey under any circumstances, because that would mean moving dangerous borders from Central Asia to South Eastern Europe. Another special question is the relationship between the European Union and the United States. Good trans-Atlantic relations are crucial for both Europe and Washington, if we want to face new global challenges such as war on terror."
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