Don't Panic! May 13 2004

Your war questions answered

What is the European Union and what does its expansion mean?

On May 1, the European Union expanded, mostly eastward, from 15 to 25 nations. If you didn't notice, well, you're not alone. It's hard to notice news that isn't reported. Our national news outlets tend to ignore stories unless they can be related to the U.S. military, an explosion, a natural disaster, a kidnapping or Michael Jackson's underpants. Our local news stations refused to pick up the EU expansion story because it did not involve a massive apartment fire.

That's fine by me, because it leaves me with more story to tell. And oh, what an exciting story it is! The story of the EU is a riveting tale of cooperation, planning, prosperity and stability. I'm talking seriously hot stuff here, people!

The first glimpse of what eventually became the EU was visible in 1951, when France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy decided to pool their coal and steel resources. The steel was for rebuilding a Europe still physically ravaged by World War II, which had ended just six years earlier. The coal was for German Christmas stockings; punishment for starting the war.

In 1957, the same nations signed the Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Community. The world wars proved to the six nations how destructive nationalism could be. The countries' leaders decided that a good way to diffuse national rivalries among Europeans was to blur the borders. In practical terms, union meant dropping the tariffs and taxes between European nations and adopting uniform laws and codes so that, for example, France could sell Renault cars in Germany just as easily as it could sell them in France. Not that any German in their right mind would buy a friggin' Renault, but you know what I mean.

The goal was to make European states as economically and socially integrated as American states. The whole process was gonna take time, but it was thought and is thought that a continent that trades together stays together. Kind of romantic, don't you think?

In 1973, Denmark, Ireland and the U.K. joined the party. In 1981, Greece joined. In 1986, Spain and Portugal bought their Eurail passes and hopped on the Euro love train. That same year, the Single European Act was enacted. It required nonmarried European men to travel the American colleges and impress my girlfriend with their cosmopolitan ways and chic attire and make me look like a slob by comparison.

Sorry, I was having a bitter flashback.

No, actually the Single European Act set 1992 as the deadline for near-complete integration of European economies. That was followed by the Maastricht Treaty, which formalized the name European Union and pulled some social, legal and foreign policy sovereignty away from member states to make the EU more like our federal system.

There was a problem, though. Even if every citizen of an EU state wore the same uniform, swore allegiance to co-Presidents Hasselhoff and Depardieu and spoke only Esperanto, Europe could hardly be called unified because the bulk of Europe's landmass remained outside the EU.

Until 1989, when the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain collapsed because of shoddy commie craftsmanship, most of Central and Eastern Europe was Soviet-dominated. Before countries there could join the EU, they needed to shape up a bit by getting democratic, adopting a free market economic system and maybe having their teeth fixed.

You could say, and in fact I'm about to, that the May 1, 2004, expansion was the day the European Union became a true union of Europe. Adding Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia to the European Union is the real ending of the east-west European divide — one that's been in place since the United States and former USSR divvied up the continent at the end of WWII (rather than continue to fight each other). You could also say, and in fact I'm about to again, that May 1 was the real end of World War II and the Cold War. Doesn't that just warm your heart?


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