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Politics

EU: The Halo Eff

20 December 2004

EU: The Halo Effect

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Islamic world, the Islamic extremists, even bin Laden, rejoice for the entrance of Turkey into the European Union. This is their Trojan horse,” warned Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy on 17 December. The EU’s decision on that day to open membership talks with Turkey would eventually lead to Muslim domination of Europe, he explained.

It was an encouraging outburst, in a way, for Gadafy is almost always wrong: if the Sage of Tripoli is predicting disaster, then it should be all right in the end. Turkey’s eventual membership (still ten or fifteen years away) will not transform the EU; rather, Turkey will be transformed by its membership. The influences travel outwards, not inwards.

There is a kind of halo effect around the European Union. Even though the EU doesn’t actively push its values on its neighbours, the mere fact that a majority of Europeans already lives in this zone where democracy works and civil and human rights are genuinely respected is transforming expectations and behaviour in the rest of Europe. Take Turkey, for example.

The 70 million Turks have practically turned themselves inside out in their effort to meet the standards on democracy, human rights, and legal and fiscal propriety demanded of countries seeking to open membership negotiations. Turkey has changed more in the past three years than in the previous thirty, and almost entirely for the better.

Or consider the re-staged second round of the Ukrainian presidential election next Sunday, which will almost certainly be won by reformist candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The weeks of non-violent mass protests in Kiev that forced the cancellation of the rigged election results and a re-run under intense international scrutiny would probably not have happened without the hope of eventual EU membership for Ukraine.

The EU has done nothing to encourage this hope. It has just taken in ten new members, another three countries in the Balkans will probably be joining in 2007, and most EU leaders would have dodged a decision on Turkey’s candidacy this year if they were not trapped by promises made long ago. No EU government wants to start entry negotiations for 50 million impoverished Ukrainians on the borders of a resentful Russia any time soon — but Ukrainians simply ignored that.

A majority of Ukrainians, who have lived for the past thirteen years in a post-Soviet morass of arrogant corruption, brazen election-rigging and sold-out media, took to the streets because they believed that there could be an alternative future for their country in the EU. Ukrainian entry into the EU may be even further away than Turkey’s, but it was that vision of honest government, free media and fair enforcement of the law glimmering on the horizon that made the Orange Revolution in Ukraine possible.

The same was at least partly true for the Rose Revolution in Georgia last year, and it was wholly true for the other “Orange Revolution” of the past month — the one that happened in Romania. In every case the initiative came from local people demanding the same rights and values that EU citizens enjoy, not from the EU trying to export its values to the east. In fact, if it had been left to the governments that are allegedly the guardians of the EU’s democratic values, it wouldn’t have happened at all.

Romania had the most oppressive Communist party in eastern Europe before 1989, and the revolution there in December of that year was largely a fake. Leading regime members, seeing which way the wind was blowing, launched a coup, stood dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife against a wall, and shot them. But then they just renamed themselves Social Democrats and went right on ruling the place.

They have been in power for most of the past 15 years, enriching themselves shamelessly and manipulating the media and the electoral system to stay in charge. Corruption is so bad that an estimated ten percent of the average Romanian’s income goes to bribing public officials. Romania was much less qualified for EU membership than Turkey — it even has a lower per capita income — and yet the EU was pushing entry negotiations through to an early conclusion.

The 22 million Romanians are not Muslims, so there was no popular anxiety in existing EU members about letting them in. EU officials were deeply cynical about the possibility of real reform in Romania, and decided to let it in anyway. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, once a fervent supporter of Ceausescu, seemed to be cruising smoothly to another term after the first round of elections in early December, although monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe reported multiple voting frauds. (The EU did not bother to send monitors.)

In effect, practically everybody had written off democracy in Romania — except the Romanians. In the second round of voting on 12 December, with much closer monitoring of the polls, they voted Nastase out and elected Traian Basescu, a former ship’s captain with no links to the ex-Communist oligarchy. It will take Basescu years to loosen the grip of the oligarchs on Romania’s economy and its media (as it will for Yushchenko in Ukraine, too), but the Romanians have decided that if they are going to be in the EU, they want the whole package.

Given the choice, people know what they want.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 1, 2 and 6. (“The Islamic…inwards”; and “The EU…ignored that”)