Mixed blessing of the EU kind

UDAY BALAKRISHNAN | Updated on February 03, 2011

Hungary will have to balance its newly assumed role of EU presidency with the interests of its avowedly rightwing government . - Uday Balakrishnan

On New Year's Eve I was at a party in an apartment overlooking the Danube and the magnificent Hungarian Parliament on the Pest side of Budapest. It was a large gathering of people from all parts of Europe — Italians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Dutch, Germans and several other nationalities. In the midst of such amiable diversity, the Second World War appeared to be an awful and tragic waste.

True, old animosities exist, but these have been rendered benign by the opportunities that have made most of Europe open to all Europeans. For the people of Eastern Europe, membership of the EU appears to be a mixed blessing. Many feel they have exchanged one form of second-class citizenship under the USSR for another — a differently humiliating one under the Germans, increasingly seen as the visible face of the EU.

But perhaps it is in the nature of humans to crib. As an outsider, I am astonished at the world the EU has opened out for the peoples of Eastern Europe. Hungary's moment has arrived this year, on its assuming the rotating position of the EU Presidency. It is interesting to see how the avowedly rightwing government in Budapest manages this. The EU Presidency circumscribes its capacity to be too nationalistic.

The EU has not been too successful in enforcing recognised codes of democratic conduct in the Union. However, it has succeeded in making citizens and governments in its member countries not only aware of the codes but also acknowledge an invisible but very real line of civilised behaviour that no one in the EU can afford to cross.

The EU allows free movement of people anywhere in the Union, and Europeans are taking full advantage of it. It is also collectively a very wealthy area. Many studies indicate that if the EU did not exist, Europe's economy would have been much smaller, possibly less than half its present size.

It also looks less and less likely that any country within the Union will go to war with another, something that happened all the time over the last thousand years in Europe. The evolving mechanisms for dispute settlement amongst member countries are becoming more robust, though in areas such as corruption the EU's diktat does not run far. All the same, the EU serves as a model of mutually hostile countries pulling together for their common good. Nothing underlines this better than the manner in which the Union handled the crisis caused by Greek duplicity and Irish profligacy.

There is much we, in our part of the world, can learn from the EU experience. While it may not be possible at this stage to pull in a country like Pakistan or Afghanistan into a South Asian Union, there is no reason why it cannot be forged between India and China. Carefully planned and executed, such an association will bring incredible benefits to both countries and advance their pace of development by several decades.

With all the hype about growth in China and India, we tend to forget that both countries have a long way to go before their citizens can enjoy a lifestyle that Europeans and Americans have taken for granted for decades. Millions are desperately poor in both countries. Both can do with further speeding up of growth, and that growth is likely to be much more environmentally-friendly if they work together.

On the face of it, a union between China and India may appear mismatched. China's is a far bigger economy and a much more powerful one. However, as several studies have shown, India stands a real chance of overtaking China in the short-long run — that is, if it can effectively leverage the demographic advantage it enjoys with a population set to remain younger for much longer than China's. Moreover, India is doing very well economically too. Thus, it will be equally in China's interest to forge an EU-style union with India. The disputes between the two countries are relatively recent and not impossible to resolve, and good relations go a long way back in time. In cultural terms, whether it is acknowledged today or not, India has always had the upper hand. Anyone who has read the 16th-Century Chinese classic Journey to the West, popularly known as the Monkey, by Wu Cheng'en will confirm that.

A union between the two countries will save billions in useless defence expenditure, and shared environmental problems can be resolved to the best advantage of both. The trading bloc such a union will create will inevitably suck in the ASEAN countries too, much to everyone's advantage. Who knows, if such a Union came about we might have both Pakistan and Bangladesh knocking at its door. It will also open out for the Central Asian republics opportunities that they cannot even visualise today. The other smaller nations around India would also clamour to join it, for the enormous benefits of such a coming together will not be lost on them.

‘A pipedream' many may say to this seemingly preposterous suggestion, but at the end of the Second World War who could have predicted that Germany, France and the UK will live within a common union or that Hungary will be presiding over it?

Published on February 03, 2011

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