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Tiny Slovenia Craves to Be a Joiner in the EU

Some have misgivings, but a sense of manifest destiny drives a move toward linked societies.

October 26, 2003|Mort Rosenblum | Associated Press Writer

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia — Little Slovenia, emerging from Old World shadows, is remaking itself as a regional dynamo, part of a 25-nation European superstate designed to rival the United States.

Among Europe's best-kept secrets for its relaxed lifestyle and spectacular Alpine setting, Slovenia exemplifies a quiet revolution that dwarfs imperial dreams dating back a millennium to Charlemagne.

Ten countries as disparate as Poland and Malta are to join 15 European Union member states in May, bringing the total population to 450 million with a combined gross domestic product rivaling America's.

Despite hesitation among many who oppose a larger EU, a sense of manifest destiny is driving a slow but steady evolution toward open borders, linked societies and a single currency.

"We're doing away with borders, not only on land, but also in people's minds," said Janez Potocnik, Slovenia's minister for European affairs.

The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Soviet republics until 1991, each voted to join. So did Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, all former communist states.

The power of the EU to drive reform is evident on the divided island of Cyprus, where people from the Turkish side peacefully forced open the fortified border this year rather than be left out when the Greek half joins the union.

Malta, another Mediterranean island republic, is also coming in.

If all goes as planned, Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania will join in 2007, and others may come later, extending EU borders from Ireland to the Black Sea, skirting the edge of Russia.

For Slovenia, which for most of its history has lived under some foreigner's thumb, giving up a measure of newly won independence is significant.

Until its weeklong war of secession from Yugoslavia in 1991, the New Jersey-sized nation of 2 million people saw itself as a reluctant doormat between a backward Balkans and a more advanced Europe to the north and west.

After World War II, Slovenia was dissolved into a seamless, gray Yugoslavia, with cooperative farming and state industries. Now a different state has emerged, alive with energy and vibrant colors.

Already, Slovenia's annual per capita national product is $10,000, in the range of EU members Greece and Portugal. Its economy grew 3% last year, and exports reached $11 billion.

Although their language resembles Serbo-Croatian, Slovenes say their mentality is closer to their Austrian and Italian neighbors. They are well placed to be a center for services and technology for their part of Europe.

When it came to a vote recently, 90% chose the EU, far more than in the Baltic states, where citizens also had to consider losing some of the independence they won only 12 years ago.

"It was an easy choice," said Potocnik, who led intricate negotiations at EU headquarters in Brussels. "We are part of Europe."

He believes that membership will force Slovenes to work harder and raise their standards, thus ensuring healthy growth in a vastly larger market. With competition, farmers will produce and sell more.

But if Slovenia illustrates European promise, it also shows the problems of lumping together societies of different languages and cultures, many of which have fought bitter wars within living memory.

At the storefront information center set up to cheerlead for the EU, the young man on duty was dubious. Slovenia voted heavily to join, he said, but he knew of no one who was enthusiastic about it.

He asked not to be identified, but a range of others echoed his basic fear: When hard reality dampens high expectations and rules written in Brussels impinge on daily life 500 miles away in Slovenia, the mood may shift toward hostility.

"What choice do we have?" asked Janez Lotric, head of the Slovenian gasoline company. He is optimistic despite a threat of more competition.

Zoran Thaler, an economic consultant and former foreign minister, chose almost the same words. Small states like Slovenia cannot afford to stand apart from the inevitable, he said.

But, he added, a hodgepodge of so many cultures, income levels and specific national interests may never be able to achieve the EU's goal of common policies for defense and foreign affairs.

Closer to home, Thaler worries about the impact on daily life.

Cars now speed up from Croatia, often with only a glance from border guards. Next year, that border will be Fortress Europe's rampart holding back the tide of illegal immigration from the Balkans and Middle East.

People walk under the president's windows and wander into government ministries, ignoring the metal detectors, because neither crime nor terrorism is a major concern. EU security standards are different.

At Ljubljana's riverside market, Lidinja Kurtic, 28, sells tulips that she imports from the Netherlands. Next year, she expects Dutch merchants to come sell the tulips themselves.

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