European papers on both sides of the former Iron Curtain were filled with reports from Athens this week, where European Union leaders met Wednesday to sign treaties with their eastern counterparts, expanding the union to 25 countries.
In Prague, papers led with photographs of right-wing Czech President Vaclav Klaus and leftist Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, ideological rivals at home, signing the treaty side by side. Leading daily Mlada Fronta Dnes went full throttle emphasizing the historic moment in an outsized headline: "Signed. We Can Go Into the EU."
"European integration is a success story," said an article co-authored by the leaders of Germany, Sweden, and Hungary in Germany's Die Zeit Wednesday. In France's Le Monde, the Greek premier wrote that signing "realizes the dream of a generation and reunifies Europe 13 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall."
The Danes, meanwhile, sounded a note of skepticism. While hailing the ceremony as a "joyful event" taking place in Western civilization's "cradle of democracy," Information wrote that the acrimonious split over Iraq led to an atmosphere that was "far from as cheerful as it was at the end of the Danish EU presidency [in December]." Of current EU members, Denmark, along with Great Britain, is considered to be least enthusiastic about European federalism. (German, French, and Danish translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)
In Prague and elsewhere in the east, such concerns played second fiddle. "For humanity, which is struggling with the implications of wars, hatred, and massive criminality, the expansion of the EU to include Czechs, Slovaks, and other people is only a small change. For Europe, which has just recently struggled with the same horrors, it is a huge step," wrote a Mlada Fronta Dnes commentator in Thursday's edition. The paper put reports of anti-war rioting in Athens on its inside pages. In Hungary, which has an even longer history of subjugation to foreign powers than many of its neighbors, daily Nepszabadsag gushed, calling the signing of the treaty "a dream come true." The paper added, "After half a millennium, our country is at last in the mainstream of progress." (Hungarian translation via the BBC.)
Local partisan sniping colored some of the coverage. Left-leaning Czech daily Pravo reminded readers that despite his pep talk for enlargement, President Klaus is a Euro-skeptic at heart. In Athens, it wrote, "Klaus didn't look like the critic of Brussels he is." The abrasive successor to Vaclav Havel gave a short speech in which he noted, with trademark hubris, that it was he, as prime minister, who submitted the Czech application to join the EU in 1996. A Pravo op-ed countered, "Not until … the [succeeding] government filled this formality with the essential 'meat' of the laws did the Czechs catch up with the legislature of the union."
Now the only thing standing in the way of full EU membership for the Eastern 10 is a spate of referendums in the candidate countries and parliamentary approval by existing member states. Following the signing, "the [Polish] government's priority is to persuade people to take part in the European referendum and vote 'Yes,' " declared the Warsaw Voice. (The candidates are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Of these countries, eight are former Soviet satellites, and six did not even exist as nominally sovereign countries until the early 1990s. Full membership is scheduled for May 2004. For more on the treaty itself, see this BBC backgrounder.)
Voters in Hungary, Malta, and Slovenia have already given the nod—the latest approval coming last weekend, when 84 percent of Hungarian voters said "Yes." Despite the numbers, Hungary's EU enthusiasm is seen as tepid at best as the vote was marred by low turnout, with only 46 percent of the population going to the polls. Following the vote, Nepszabadsagquoted unnamed EU sources blaming the government's campaign strategy for the unexpectedly low turnout, according to the Budapest Sun.
Reports are circulating of a rapprochement between French President Jacques Chirac and the easterners he alienated in February with his infamous "they missed a good opportunity to keep quiet" outburst. Last week, Latvian newspaper Diena cited the royal treatment given the country's president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, when she visited Paris. "Chirac is a friend again," the paper wrote. (Translation via EU Observer.)
Some publications mentioned colorful ceremonial details, such as the brand of the pen officials used (Waterman, according to Pravo). Prague's Lidove Noviny pointed out that the treaty was literally as well as figuratively weighty: It ran to 4,844 pages and weighed over 45 pounds. Pravo noted that Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis mixed up the names of the Czech president and prime minister, calling Klaus "Vladimir Spidla." He repeated the mistake twice with two other presidents, calling Polish President Alexander Kwasniewsky "Leszek Miller" and Slovak President Rudolf Schuster "Mikulas Dzurinda," fanning Eastern Europeans' paranoia of perceived ignorance and condescension from their western neighbors.