The European Union is shifting eastward to include 10 new countries as of Saturday, an historic expansion in the view of analysts and politicians, especially because eight of the new members are former Soviet bloc nations.
At a ceremony in Dublin, Ireland, the new members will be welcomed after an arduous accession process under which they were obligated to comply with a slew of EU economic and business criteria.
Meantime, around the newcomer nations, dozens of events are planned to celebrate the expansion, culminating with spectacular fireworks displays at midnight — 6 p.m. EDT — when the EU becomes a potential economic and political powerhouse of 25 nations and 450 million citizens.
The EU’s “Big Bang” expansion brings in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, along with Cyprus and Malta, which were never in the Soviet orbit.
But, even though the expansion promises a new, elusive unity on a political level, it has also been criticized as a process that ignores the sentiment of current EU citizens.
In particular, there are concerns that it could generate new economic woes for western countries that have already been struggling with high unemployment and ailing economies. The sentiment is most clearly evident in Germany, the EU's largest member state and economic powerhouse.
The newcomers, which are still experiencing the negative economic effects of communist hegemony, will expand the EU's population by about 75 million people — an increase of 20 percent -- but will add only 5 percent to the union's economy.
Politicians in Brussels, home of the EU headquarters, say that an extension will increase cultural diversity, boost economic growth, and strengthen the union's role in world affairs. But, fewer controls at the new borders, an open job market, and free travel for EU citizens might pose more than just a challenge.
While there is overall support for the EU among the new member states, many people in the other 15 countries remain skeptical about the enlargement process.
In a nationally broadcast speech, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder sought to allay concerns among Germans that lower-paid workers from neighboring Poland and other eastern countries threaten their jobs. Greater trade across the enlarged Europe “will make us not poorer, but richer,” Schroeder said.
At the same time, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a commentary for Friday’s editions of The Times of London, called the expansion — Europe’s most significant political shift since World War II — “a catalyst for change within the EU.”
Germans split on issue
A majority of Germans, 55 percent of the people questioned in a recent poll for ZDF, German television, said that the EU expansion is generally "good.”
Yet, 40 percent still believe it is "not good" -- numbers that reflect a growing skepticism, not only among Germans, but other western European nations alike.
Forty-seven percent of those polled say that the welcoming of new EU members will rather bring disadvantages, while only 18 percent believe Germany, the largest nation in the EU, would gain from the expansion.
Germans are mainly worried about another rise in unemployment, which already stands high with more than 4.3 million people out of work in the country.
Fears are particularly pronounced in the eastern part of Germany, where unemployment has remained a major problem since German reunification 14 years ago.
Border town fears
"As long as a large gap in wages remains on both sides of the border, we will be confronted with a variety of problems," the mayor of Frankfurt/Oder, Martin Patzelt told NBC News. "But, we also see this as a chance and a challenge," Patzelt added.
Frankfurt is connected with Poland by a bridge over the Oder river and where cross-border exchange already is a routine.
Patzelt recently organized a workshop involving officials from both sides of the border. On a local level, the mayors are hoping to find ways with which they can adjust the divergent living standards on either side of the frontier.
"We fear that more Polish laborers will flood our city, offering to work for less pay," Patzelt said. "There is not even enough work for the young Germans that live here and some of the skilled workers that we have trained might just head east."
In fact, many eastern German regions, where unemployment is stuck around 18 percent, have experienced an exodus of young, qualified workers in the past ten years, leaving many small towns with nothing but senior citizens.
Once border controls are relaxed, the flow of cross-border traffic will speed up and it will become easier for Germans, for example, to head to Poland, where gas and cigarettes are considerably cheaper and a haircut might cost only half the price.
But, more than an increase of cash flow to the east, officials, like Patzelt fear the loss of investment, if the region does not stay competitive. "Regulations and infrastructures need to be altered," Patzelt said.
The German government has recently initiated reforms with which it wants to combat the burdening German tax system and make the country more attractive to foreign investors, but so far, the effects have barely been visible on a local level.
Just last month, Frankfurt/Oder lost a potential investor, who was going to create 300 new jobs in the region, when the entrepreneur found more lucrative economic conditions and received a necessary bank credit next door, in Poland.
Uncertain about effects
EU officials say that without enlargement, they would be less able to combat organized crime, illegal immigration, and terrorism. But the loosening of regular border searches may also allow an increase in illegal trade and human trafficking.
Customs officials in Brandenburg, the German state which shares most of its border with Poland, will operate with considerably fewer staff and vehicle searches will soon only be sporadic. As a result, police expect a surge in EU migration and an influx of more illegal immigrants.
Last week, Germans watched a ZDF TV report from Trebisov in eastern Slovakia, where hundreds of thousands of Roma, a European ethnic minority, are living in bitter poverty.
Almost 100 percent of the Roma population in Slovakia is unemployed and the government is continuing to cut social welfare, leaving large families with a bare minimum.
Jochen Blaschke, a migration analyst, expects a mass migration of the poor Roma middle class once Slovakia joins the EU.
"I believe that those who received a good education will soon leave for a western country," Blaschke told ZDF television.
"Those who are too poor have only one goal: to obtain 150 euros for a one-way flight ticket to the West," Blaschke said.
A vision for the future
Experts say the political and economic instability in some of the ex-communist countries that will make up the newly expanded union are likely to burden its economy in the first years and could undermine its already staggering reform process.
Many European diplomats believe that the newcomers will not form a unified group in the EU, but instead will join existing coalitions in the bloc, which could, as a result, deepen current divisions among member states.
Despite the criticism, leading European politicians praise this latest EU enlargement as the end of the division of Europe.
"Europe has changed for the better," Blair said earlier this month. "However, the enlargement process needs to be sustained so future generations can continue to reap the benefits," Blair argued.
And, the EU will continue its expansion process. By the end of this year, the European Union is hoping to complete negotiations with Bulgaria and Romania and to make a decision on whether to start talks with Turkey.