Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Central Europe: New Partners or Poor Relations?

LONDON - The Dirty Dozen are at it again. For the last three years the leaders of the 12 countries of the European Community have pranced around making grand speeches about "the European mission" - peace, justice, democracy, unity and love between the nations of this continent. If they were not all politicians dressed in dark suits and ties, you could almost mistake them for an older, balder and fatter version of the hippies at Woodstock in 1968.

Yet since 1990 these same leaders have scarcely lifted a finger to fulfill the most urgent task facing Europe in this decade: the integration into the European Community of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If they have moved their fingers at all, it has been to wag them in a stem and pompous manner, as if they are addressing boisterous children who need to be reminded that they are not adults yet.

Publicly, EC governments, say they want the nations of Central Europe to join the Community. They signed association agreements with Poland, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia in December 1991. But privately, many of them think it is a lost cause. In the next few years, the EC will expand to include places like Austria, Sweden, Finland and possibly Switzerland and Norway: the "safe bets". Meanwhile, the Central Europeans will be left out in the cold.

Why is the EC being so beastly? The basic reason is that a bunch of Western European politicians have decided that the Central Europeans are too poor, and possibly too unstable. If they were let in now, it is said, their inefficient, largely state-run industries simply could not compete with super-modern Western Europe. Besides, are they not too close for comfort to danger zones such as the Balkans and the former Soviet Union?

The argument sounds convincing, but is actually hypocritical nonsense. Insofar as the EC pursues any policy towards Central Europe, it is one of selective protectionism. There is nothing the EC fears more than a flood of cheap agricultural and industrial exports from Central Europe. In 1991, France blocked a proposal to let Hungary export an extra 550 tons of beef to the EC. Last December the EC imposed steel import quotas on all four Central European countries, which were already facing a 30 percent tariff.

The longer the EC discriminates against Central Europe, the more likely it is that its fears of instability on its borders will come true. These countries have more than enough problems trying to convert totalitarianism into democracy and central planning into the social market. With its current attitude, the EC is merely increasing the chance that the Central Europeans will be problem children for decades to come.