A Dutch Retreat?

Qualms among pols could jeopardize EU enlargement

The Dutch have traditionally been dedicated supporters of the European ideal. A small nation with a centuries-long tradition of international trade and travel, they enthusiastically promoted the creation of a single European market in 1992. Three years later, they eagerly swept away passport controls when the Schengen zone allowed Europeans to travel unchecked across most of the region. Shrugging off nostalgia for their own revered currency, they rushed to use euro notes and coins when Europe's new money arrived at the beginning of this year.

Yet many politicians and citizens in this prosperous little country have serious qualms about expanding the European Union to the east. Indeed, the issue is so controversial that it helped bring down the three-party coalition government on Oct. 16. In a no-holds-barred Cabinet row five days earlier, the two junior parties in the Christian Democrat-led administration--the People's Party for Freedom & Democracy (VVD) and the populist Lijst Pym Fortuyn--openly opposed letting Poland, Slovakia, and several other candidate countries into the European Union in 2004. "Some of these countries simply aren't ready and won't be for years," says Jozias van Aartsen, former foreign minister and senior VVD member of Parliament.

It's not simply a matter of money. To be sure, van Aartsen says he is worried about the financial cost to the Dutch--who already pay far more into Brussels' coffers than they get back--of integrating Poland, with its 38 million people and large agricultural sector. But the VVD's concerns go way beyond the size of the budget. Party officials say democracy in Slovakia is not sufficiently deep-rooted to justify its admission. They're concerned by judicial and bureaucratic corruption in the former Soviet republics of Latvia and Lithuania. And they say the economic gap between the EU and some of the candidate countries is too large for the new members to even think about adopting the single currency.

"Bringing so many countries into the EU in a `Big Bang' expansion just doesn't make sense," says van Aartsen. "We are not against these countries joining the EU. But we want them to be ready, politically and economically. To let them in now would hurt them as well as us. It's better for some of them to wait rather than to regret joining in two years' time."

Alarmed by the prospect of large-scale immigration from Eastern Europe, populist right-wing politicians across the EU have been voicing similar sentiments for months. But it has been politically incorrect until now for mainstream parties to express their concern in public. The fear in Brussels: Now that the leading lights of the liberal VVD--which has helped form several Dutch governments in recent years--have broken ranks, other politicians in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe could follow suit.

EU heads of government are rushing to nip this latent hostility in the bud. They have agreed to continue monitoring the suitability of the candidate countries for membership even after the accession treaties are signed at April's Athens summit. They also have committed themselves to reforming the costly Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which currently accounts for 45% of the EU budget. The Dutch have long campaigned for a change in the way the EU subsidizes the politically powerful agriculture industry. "The EU's protectionist and costly CAP is wasteful and unfair," says van Aartsen.

The Dutch could still throw a spanner in the works. If the parties that oppose enlargement win seats in the general election on Jan. 22, they could muster a majority in Parliament in favor of holding a referendum on the issue.

The polls show that most Dutch people support enlargement. But if they vote against it, they would derail the whole project at a very late date. According to EU rules, all member countries must agree unanimously before new members are admitted to their exclusive club. For one of Europe's smallest countries, that's a lot of power to wield.

By David Fairlamb in Frankfurt

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