The European Commission's recommendation Wednesday that 10 new countries should be permitted to join the European Union by 2004 was described by Spain's El País as "the Big Bang." With the addition of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, the European Union would stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals and from Portugal to Estonia, encompassing more than 400 million people in 25 countries. Britain's Guardian celebrated the achievement: "If successful, it will to a considerable degree bind a continent riven through all living memory by hot and cold war. If all goes to plan, it will help entrench democracy, promote a shared prosperity, and set legal and societal standards to which all must rise."
The pro-European Independent acknowledged that if the ambitious expansion failed, "the achievements of the existing EU—including the single market—could be destroyed." The biggest challenge will be economic: The 10 applicant nations have a total gross domestic product equivalent to that of the Netherlands; as El País noted the expansion would add 20 percent more people but only 4.6 percent more wealth; and according to the Guardian per capita income in the 10 applicant countries is about 40 percent of that in member states as an expression of GDP. Switzerland's Tribune de Genève fretted that with the increase in numbers, "the union will not just grow, it will mutate and its nature will change. … Nothing will be left of the old community but the contours of the great market."
The Independent also worried that admitting 10 countries at one time "poses the huge risk that the EU's already sclerotic decision-making process will simply seize up. Even basic administration will be slowed when the Commission has to translate legal decisions not into its existing 11 official languages but into Estonian, Hungarian and Polish too." The Times said the "European Parliament will take a step closer to becoming a modern Tower of Babel next month, when its proceedings are interpreted into 23 languages. … The EU is already the largest linguistic institutional melting pot in the world, with more than 1,900 in-house translators and interpreters."
Although the 10 accession candidates made what the Financial Times described as "prodigious efforts" to meet the EU's "Copenhagen criteria" for membership (for more details, see this BBC Q and A), several commentators moaned that the member states have failed to prepare for expansion. The Times said that if the European Commission had also "sat in judgment on the EU's existing members, it would have had to record a discreditable gap between rhetoric and action." The editorial credited the lack of action to "cold feet about enlargement" on the part of some EU leaders.
One big question about expansion will be answered Oct. 19, when Ireland holds another referendum on the Treaty of Nice, which governs EU expansion. In June 2001 Irish voters rejected the treaty, so the government decided to ask again. According to the Financial Times, "The No side is irritated that the referendum is being staged at all, with many expected to protest at having to vote a second time on the same proposal." In the case of another "no" vote, enlargement would, in the words of an International Herald Tribune op-ed, "be torpedoed." The IHT continued: "Many, not only in Brussels, would ask why the grand design of the unification of Europe is being put at risk because some pesky little country with a population less than 1 percent of the EU total has had second thoughts. Of course the answer is that to ignore the Irish vote would make a mockery of democratic accountability."
While Bulgaria and Romania were told they must wait until 2007 to join the community, the European Commission refused to so much as offer Turkey a date when it might start to negotiate entry. El País said the commission "had thrown a bucket of cold water on Turkey." An op-ed in the Independent called this decision "dishonest, stupid and short-sighted" as well as "foolish when bringing in a state that bridges Europe with the Muslim world and holds such a pivotal role in the Middle East and Central Asia holds such long-term advantages." Although the author admitted that Turkey is not yet a "nice democracy," he said some EU members "are determined that Turkey never joins—the Greeks because of historic enmity, the Germans because they fear an invasion of Turkish workers and because they wish to see a northern-centered Europe, with Berlin as its natural capital, rather than a Europe balanced around the Mediterranean."