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“People feel threatened by globalisation, not by enlargement”

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The integration of 10 new members into the EU was a success, assumes Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen. However, a French No to the constitutional treaty could do serious harm.

The German Günter Verheugen was in charge of EU enlargement under the Prodi Commission and thus is one of the architects of the biggest changes in the history of the EU. Today, he is Commissioner for enterprise and industry.

How would you reassure the old EU members that perceive the new ones as an economic threat, particularly as regards the labour market?

Perception often differs from reality. There is no doubt that, economically, last year’s enlargement is a success story, for old and new member states alike. With enlargement, a huge new market of 70 million increasingly affluent consumers has been created. Trade statistics tell us that exports to Poland and the Czech Republic from Germany and France have soared, while Austrian banks do highly successful business in the new member states. The fact that people feel threatened has nothing to do with enlargement, but rather with globalisation, increasingly open markets and the decline of protectionism. I know that some people feared that “Old Europe” would be flooded with immigrants, legal or illegal, snatching jobs from domestic citizens. [There were also fears that] the social security systems of the EU-15 would be stretched by social security tourists from new member states. None of that happened. All old EU member states but the UK, Sweden and Ireland have imposed restrictions on the freedom of movement of workers anyway. [Moreover], workers have been filling posts in the labour market domestic workers would not do (such as asparagus harvests in Germany or tomato picking in Spain). In Sweden, social tourism did not happen: less than € 20,000 was paid out to families from the new member states by the national insurance board.

In the economic field, have the hopes of the ten new EU countries been completely realised?

In economic terms, the gains are clear. The new EU members saw gross domestic product rise 5% last year, from 3.7% in 2003. Economists forecast a further increase of more than 4% in 2005 - more than twice the rate of the "old" EU countries. Latvia is estimated to have grown 8.5% in 2004 - the highest rate in the EU - compared with an EU average of 2.4%. Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and Poland also fared well at 6.7%, 6.2% 5.5% and 5.3% respectively. Overall, the forecasts are for continued strong growth - and above the EU average for 2005 and 2006 - with the exception of Malta. Exports also rose 20%. East European producers who feared being swamped by west European imports as pre-accession controls on farm trade were lifted, instead found themselves besieged by German buyers.

What would you say to the new EU countries that sometimes don’t feel considered as “full” members of the EU?

Our new members are on equal footing with the old ones, they have the same say in the EU Commission, Council or Parliament than old member states. And their voices are being heard. Just one example: Poland and Lithuania played an important role in the Ukraine crises and demonstrated that the enlarged EU has a say in what is going on in this part of the world. This is the proof of what I had already forecast before enlargement – that the new member states will enrich the EU in each and every respect.

If the European Constitutional Treaty is not ratified, will the European institutions be able to govern the enlarged Europe?

Don’t forget that the EU of 25 is already now functioning on the basis of the Nice Treaty and not the constitution - and is working fine. Moreover, I remain optimistic as regards the outcome of the French referendum because I trust the European spirit of the French people. Not least since I am a German and will never forget that people from France launched the idea of European integration and by doing so offered Germany a new chance after the Second World War. However, I am also well aware of the current polls. I am convinced that a No in France would clearly have a political backlash not only for European integration, but also for German-French cooperation and partnership. However, our ties are too strong for such a backlash to destroy integration, but nobody can exclude serious damage.