Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2004
Future stability of European Union will depend on public acceptance in new member countries
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Remember those glorious early 1990s, when the images of the Berlin Wall crumbling were still fresh in our minds, and most Central and Eastern Europeans were excited about the prospects of joining the European Union?
Now, on the eve of the accession of 10 new countries to the EU, public opinion in support of a united and economically integrated Europe may be wavering. That could spell trouble for the stability of the union, which is about to undergo a massive transformation. On May 1, the EU will increase its population from 370 million to 450 million, double its territory to 2.5 million square miles and go from 11 to 20 languages.
"As EU accession nears, some people have become skeptical of the potential costs of joining," said Robert Rohrschneider, professor of political science and acting director of West European Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. "Initially, we saw strong support, but now that the EU has begun to implement new laws and rules, people are beginning to see the problems of accession -- such as growing unemployment rates -- that come with trying to establish a free market economy. These problems conflict with the basic tenants of socialism."
Public opinion experts from 13 post-communist Eastern European countries will examine the shifting public opinion of the EU at a two-day conference, April 2-3, at Indiana University Bloomington. The conference was organized by Rohrschneider and Stephen Whitefield, a fellow of Pembroke College and a university lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Oxford.
Rohrschneider said that recent studies of public support for the EU in some of the first-wave accession countries, especially Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, document a noticeable decline of EU support. The central reasons for this growing opposition appear to be the fact that political parties increasingly politicize the prospective membership of a country in the EU, and that citizens become more aware of what European integration means for them, he said.
Political elites in these accession countries have "increasingly picked up on this resentment and have been politicizing the costs of membership," he added. Often, this opposition comes from both left- and right-wing parties, and there also is "quite a bit of skepticism among mainstream parties," he said.
The 10 countries that will join the EU on May 1 are Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. The European Union, which was previously known as the European Community, was created after World War II to unite the nations of Europe economically and prevent another war among them. Fifteen countries, totaling about 370 million people, are currently members of the EU. The EU launched a single currency, the Euro, in 2002. It is being used by 12 EU countries.
Despite the apparent growth of opposition to the EU among mass publics, there is a surprising lack of systematic studies of how ordinary citizens in accession countries evaluate the EU, Rohrschneider said. Most studies focus on a single nation only, usually Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic. Several studies rely on published reports about public opinion instead of directly examining how citizens evaluate the EU. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the causes for the growing rejection of the EU in East-Central Europe, he said.
Rohrschneider said that one reason there is so little systematic knowledge about the EU is that this information is mostly stored in national data archives in East-Central Europe. Western researchers usually do not access this rich source of data for their analyses, partly because of language barriers and partly because they do not have access to these archives, he said.
Conference panelists will attempt to learn how political elites are framing the accession issue and how various political parties are framing the EU in their programs, platforms and pronouncements. They will also focus on several factors that influence public views about the EU, including how well national institutions work, public preferences regarding markets and democracies, and the degree to which partisan loyalties affect views about the EU.
Other topics that will be discussed include regional and national peculiarities in the accession process and how integration is viewed within EU outsiders Russia and Ukraine.
Rohrschneider and Whitefield write about the support for integration in Eastern Europe in an article in Comparative Political Studies, which will be published in April.
-- IUB's political science department features a number of specialists in East-Central Europe, including professors and conference panelists Jack Bielasiak, Aurelian Craiutu and Henry Hale. Hale recently spearheaded a conference on the current Russian election cycle and its implications for the future of democracy in that country. To read more about the conference, go to http://newsinfo.iu.edu/news/page/normal/1296.html.
-- The political science department recently received a top 10 global ranking from the London School of Economics and Political Science. To view the rankings, go to http://www.indiana.edu/~iupolsci/hix.html.