Saturday, 15 May 2004

Plus Ça Change…

STRASBOURG — You know the political times are changing in Europe when a parliamentarian stands up during a solemn opening ceremony and gives props to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

It wasn’t exactly evidence of a seismic shift in the European political landscape. But it certainly raised an eyebrow or two when Micha³ Tomasz Kamiñski, 32-year-old MEP from Warsaw, made his maiden speech on the floor of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where the assembly this week held the final plenary session of its current five-year term. His comment was met with what could most charitably be described as a smattering of applause from his colleagues, but at least it was said.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising — on a day when Europe celebrates the historic re-unification of east and west — to hear a Pole praise two conservative Western political icons who helped tear down the Iron Curtain. True, Kamiñski, as a member of small, right-wing party grouping, is not likely to have much if any influence in the chamber. But he’s not alone. And there were other signs in the Alsatian capital that the ten new countries that have joined the EU will bring some much needed energy to what has become an economically and philosophically sclerotic European Union.

Tellingly, the first words spoken on the floor of the European Parliament by an MEP from a new EU member state were in…English. Hungarian deputy Mátyás Eörsi was given the floor just before Kamiñski. “Mr. President,” he said, “as the very first speaker from the new countries I feel deeply moved.”

It was only a sentence before returning to his native Hungarian, but it reflects the overwhelming preference in eastern European countries for English as a second language and subtly reveals how willing New Europe is to look beyond Berlin and Paris for its political guidance.

(Another sign the times are a-changin’: I witnessed an eastern European at the European Parliament’s press bar ordering a Coke, and not just in English. He wanted it with ice!)

Then there was the press conference given on opening day by Lech Walesa, who was on hand to participate in a ceremony welcoming MEPs from the new member states and, of course, to provide a vivid reminder of the courageous sacrifices required on the part of some to make EU enlargement possible. I’m not talking about bureaucrats in the European Commission, I’m talking about steel workers in Gdansk.

Walesa is not a major player in Polish politics anymore, and he is prone to rambling in his public statements. Some reporters rolled their eyes at what he had to say. But he was not afraid to take dead aim at ludicrous labor laws enacted by the old member states that will restrict access to jobs in the west to workers from east. “After seven years our workers can access your market,” Walesa complained. “This is communism, ladies and gentlemen.” He would know.

These new EU countries aren’t looking for handouts (well, maybe just a few, thank you). They just want a chance to grow and compete without submitting yet again to interventionism from a central committee in some distant capital. Perhaps Mart Laar, the former Estonian prime minister and now an MEP, put it best when he told his colleagues from the new member states, “We shouldn’t ask what Europe can do for us, we should ask what we can do for Europe.” Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché reference, but the thought is exactly right. The new countries will teach the old a thing or two — not the other way around.

It’s a defining moment for Europe. At the end of Eörsi’s opening remarks he switched back from Hungarian to English to challenge his colleagues to rise to it. “Let me conclude by saying that Europe is already strong and successful but we can make it much stronger and much more successful. The potential in European citizens is ready to be released. What else could our task ahead be, other than the freeing of this European potential?”

Craig Winneker

This article first appeared on techcentralstation