Ten years ago, something new began happening in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. After more than 40 years of living under Soviet domination, people began to protest--in one country after another. Few observers at the time grasped the full significance. Who could have foreseen all the consequences that would follow?
Today it's clear to everyone that 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall--the event that became the symbol of that extraordinary year--really did mark the dawn of a new era, for each country individually and for Europe as a whole.
I need only think of my own country, Italy, to see how far-reaching has been the change. Along with the fall of the Wall came the fall of the ideological barrier that had divided Italian political life for half a century. Italians were no longer divided by Cold War loyalties; now at last they could unite. Yes, they were still divided into two camps--conservatives on the one hand and reformers on the other--but now they could engage in a nonideological and fair debate to secure a parliamentary majority and the right to govern. It was this nonideological approach that guided me when I became Prime Minister in 1996. It enabled me to steer Italy toward meeting the Maastricht criteria for entry into the euro zone.
But 1989's greatest impact was at the European level. The fall of the Berlin Wall turned the first page in a completely new chapter of European history. And with the unification of Germany in 1990, the unification of Europe became an amazing but real possibility. For the first time since the fall of the Roman Empire, history was giving us the chance to unite Europe--not by force of arms but on the basis of shared ideals and agreed common rules.
Last year, five former Eastern bloc countries and Cyprus began negotiating terms for membership in the EU. Next year, negotiations could begin with another five--Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia--plus Malta. The enlargement process is well and truly under way. But before they can be admitted to the EU, candidate countries must meet strict economic and political criteria. They must have stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and protection of minorities. They must have a functioning market economy and be able to withstand competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.
They have already made great efforts to move in this direction. We have to help them along the road. If they lose heart and abandon the struggle, their economies will begin to diverge from the rest of the EU and progress toward democracy and human rights may grind to a halt. A historic opportunity will have been lost--perhaps forever.
What we are setting up is a very flexible accession process. By the end of 2002, negotiations will probably be concluded with the best-prepared candidate countries. I sincerely hope the first accessions can take place within the lifetime of the present European Commission.
Enlargement will bring an internal market of over 500 million consumers and an open, frontier-free area where goods and services can circulate freely. It also means a greatly expanded zone of stability and security. This has important implications for the Balkan countries, too. I believe that if we hold out to these countries the prospect of eventual EU membership under certain conditions, this will concentrate political minds in the region. It will provide a powerful stimulus for them to settle their differences, recognize each other's borders, and get down to the business of regional cooperation.
As the 21st century begins, we have a unique and probably unrepeatable opportunity to create a Europe in which all its peoples can live together in peace, security, freedom, justice, and equality. A democratic Europe where human rights are respected and the rule of law prevails. An economically integrated Europe that offers prosperity through a single market and a single currency. It is a grand project, and whatever the difficulties, I am in no doubt we should press forward with confidence, optimism, and enthusiasm.