WHEN you are climbing a steep hill, sometimes it is good to turn round and look at how far you have come. Saturday, May 1, will be such a day. That is the day when the iron curtain that drew over Europe half a century ago and that was pulled open with the collapse of the Soviet Union, will be torn down completely and consigned to the tip.
After that day, the eastern European states of Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary and Poland will become part of the European Union. European citizens will be able to travel freely, or live and work in the beautiful and once hidden and inaccessible cities of Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Tallinn and so on. There has been much negative comment about this in Britain's hysterical press. However, there is little to suggest that anything but good will come of it.
Some commentators are anxious Britain will be swamped with economic migrants; others that the low-wage economies of our eastern neighbours will undercut British businesses. Both of these things cannot happen. As far as the first goes, the evidence is that Europeans like to stay put where possible because of language barriers and strong national ties.
The same fears of a wave of migrants were expressed when Spain and Portugal joined the EU but, in fact, much of the traffic went the other way as Brits bought retirement villas or holiday homes in the sun. Ten years after they joined, there were 100,000 fewer Spaniards living in other EU countries and 110,000 Portuguese. It has been a similar story in Ireland, where increasing prosperity has meant that Irish families are no longer forced to send their children abroad to seek a better future.
As far as competition goes, that is visible already. South Korean carmaker Hyundai has announced it is building a plant in Slovakia where Peugeot and Volkswagen are already working - this little country with a population the size of Scotland will soon be producing 900,000 cars a year.
Car manufacturers hope that increasing prosperity will create new markets in the east where car ownership is less than half what it is in the present EU countries. But being part of the EU, these countries will have to fit in with the same regulations as the rest of us in terms of health and safety, and they will provide new markets for our services and products, too.
Most of them also aspire to providing a better level of health and welfare for their citizens, although the pressure to keep taxes low will hinder that. They are joining a Europe that has proved that there is more than one way to build a successful economy. The American model of low taxes and low public spending is not the only one. Some of the most successful companies in the world - Ikea, Nokia - are based in countries with high taxes and high public spending.
The US policy of impoverishing its neighbours - withholding aid from Aristide's Haiti, erecting trade barriers against Mexico, has not benefited America. It has instead helped create an army of desperate, semi-literate workers who infiltrate its borders and undercut its own people. This underclass of illegal immigrants destroys companies that provide decent working conditions. Europe has also proved that the strategy that came to be associated with Jacques Delors of directing taxpayers' money towards less well-off economies in the region has paid off.
When Spain joined the EU, its standard of living was on a par with Mexico's. It and Ireland have made every eurocent they got from Brussels count, directing money towards education, infrastructure and regional projects. It is not what the EU has done for them, but what the EU has enabled them to do for themselves. They have grown into prosperous, stable modern democracies with well-educated workforces.
EU funding was less successfully spent in Greece, where it was poured into failing industries. It is sad that Greek Cyprus also failed to grasp the opportunity offered in the vote on uniting the island, choosing instead to cling on to the nightmare of the past, so that a small shred of the iron curtain will remain, pulled across this little island.
With this exception, however, the unification on May 1, while it is mainly symbolic, represents a huge victory over the past. Saturday will be a day to crack open the Riesling and remember the post-war generation. In the aftermath of the Second World War, they had the courage and vision to move on from the nationalism of the past. They had the wisdom to remember the effect of the reparations extracted from Germany after the First World War.
They chose instead to extend a helping hand to German democrats in their vital work of facing the past and building the future. In fostering, supporting and defending the democratic institutions of post-war Germany, they helped to create the powerhouse of an economy that in its turn was able to extend a helping hand to countries such as Ireland, Spain and eventually to absorb the DDR.
This legacy of a European family where nations help and reinforce each other is something we should honour and defend.
The Scottish Herald
April 28th 2004