When Worlds Collide

Two dozen university-age Poles crowd into a conference room in Warsaw. They have come to discuss what it means to be European, and what they think about the United States.

Poland is the heavyweight among the 10 countries set to join the European Union a year from now: it represents about one half their total population, and half their total GDP. And yet these students are steeped in America. Virtually all of them have relatives in the States. Far away as it is, America was their parents' and grandparents' land of opportunity. Chicago, Poles like to point out, is Poland's second city. So--on the cusp of EU membership, with the American colossus dominating the world--where do these students expect to be living and working a decade from now? Europe? A forest of hands fills the room. America? Not a hand.

A long, long time ago--in January--the world was transfixed by the notion of two Europes. One, led by Britain and including Poland, competed for America's affection. The other, led by France, shunned the United States as a one-country axis of evil. The war in Iraq brought submerged animosities to the surface. If you were a European, you either bought into the world view of the United States or opposed it. Washington was not entirely displeased. True, France and Germany--the heartland of what Washington disparaged as "Old Europe" --were making a huge nuisance of themselves. But Britain, Spain and Italy were behind America. So was a phalanx of former Soviet-bloc countries, like Poland and Hungary, that soon would join Europe's high table as members of the European Union. This "New Europe" would push "Old Europe" into the shade.

It was, of course, a simplistic vision. Yes, there's a revolution brewing on the EU's eastern flank, with seven former Soviet-bloc states--Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary--poised to join the EU in May 2004 (joined by Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta). But as the students gathered in Warsaw made clear, the Europe that will emerge from enlargement is not necessarily a boon to America. On the one hand, as they take their place at EU councils in Brussels, these cold-war-hardened states of Central Europe will inevitably weaken the Franco-German partnership that has guided European integration for half a century. On the other, the younger generation in these "accession" countries is warier of America than its elders and quicker to challenge Washington on power plays like Iraq.

Thus the future of Europe will be something other than old versus new. The New Europe will simply be (remarkably and importantly) different. The EU has grown before--from six to nine to 12 to 15. But never have East and West met as they will next year. The newcomers have known totalitarianism firsthand. Some have demonstrated a striking appetite for "red-tooth capitalism," as an EU-country diplomat in Warsaw put it--often exceeding even their Western brethren. That could very well help shape EU economic reforms promoted by Britain and others but resisted so far by the likes of Germany and France. "Enlargement is going to bring new ideas to the party," says the diplomat. Indeed, this time around, enlargement seems an anodyne word for two worlds --colliding. Today's brand of European integration is "pretty dramatic stuff," says a Western diplomat in Warsaw. "It hasn't happened on this scale since Roman times."

Much of the coming change will be in the hands of the newcomers' "Generation E." They are their countries' first modern Europeans, a vast cohort of university students and young urban professionals who haven't grown up under communism and who will one day displace the political classes now in charge from Bratislava to Tallinn. Where older and rural Central Europeans are often hesitant about joining the EU, Gen E is rampantly pro. Polls in Poland routinely show 70 percent and higher EU approval ratings among younger voters, with the strongest pro-EU views coming from 18- to 24-year-olds. Jaroslaw Zurek, a dairy farmer in eastern Poland, says he's "afraid" that the EU "will treat us not as a partner but as a market of almost 40 million people it can sell its products to." But in Warsaw, Gosia Beczkowska, a hip young ad exec, approaches enlargement with more confidence: "The younger generations are more flexible about life. We like to take risks and want to develop ourselves as a nation. The EU offers new opportunities. It will make life completely different for us."

These stark differences of opinion are evident across Central Europe. Aigars Freimanis of the polling firm Latvijas Fakti in Riga says that while approximately 50 percent of Latvians are pro-EU, more than 70 percent of those in favor are between the ages of 18 and 35--and the majority who oppose EU integration are over 55. In Prague, Katerina Kubatova, 17, is Gen E personified. She's a student at the Italian High School in Prague, speaks four European languages and plans to work in Britain. Last week (in English) she compared her views with her father's. "I fully support joining the EU because of all the opportunities it will bring to work and travel more freely," she says. "But my father thinks things will be worse. He has his own transport business and he believes that large foreign companies will force small companies like his out of business."

The EU is not the only point of disagreement between Gen-E-ers and their elders. Another is the United States, especially since the war in Iraq. The governments of the seven Central European accession countries still back the United States. But Generation E is different. Even before Iraq, it was more skeptical about America and less driven by a sense of gratitude for its stand against communism and the Soviet Union. Surveys show that citizens who once lived behind the Iron Curtain today prefer a balance of power over unfettered power, even if the lone superpower is the United States. (Western Europeans, ironically, are happier in a world where there is no military rival to America--despite the widespread protests over Iraq.) Polls also find that, almost everywhere, young Central Europeans are slipping deeper and deeper into anti-Americanism.

Talk to Marek Stastny of the Slovak Institute for Public Affairs, who is shocked by the numbers his latest surveys turned up in April. According to him, only 26 percent of young Slovaks 21 to 23 rated the United States positively, down from 41 percent a year ago, while 70 percent rated Europe positively. Stastny attributes the decline to a sense that, with Iraq, America has grown too willing to meddle in the affairs of other countries. A recent survey by the Hungarian polling agency Median found that almost half of all Hungarians do not want the United States to play a leading role in the world. Six months ago that figure was just above one third. "George Bush is breaking international laws and doing it so rudely," says Katrina Lace, a 20-year-old Latvian law student

The picture in Poland is more complicated. As Poles often put it, Poland is the most pro-American country in the world--including America. For the most part, Gen-E Poles share their parents' and grandparents' fondness for the United States. Indeed, says Magdalena Kowalska, a War--saw University student who works at the U.S. Embassy, many young Poles have reacted to anti-Americanism elsewhere in Europe by becoming even more ardently pro-American. Yet if so, few of them were gathered in the Warsaw conference room with her last week to meet with a NEWSWEEK reporter. Many who were there, in fact, shared the unease voiced by Warsaw University student Joanna Sokolowska. "The war has changed my feeling about America. America proved its arrogance."

If anti-Americanism is rising among Gen-E Poles post-Iraq, there are no surveys yet to prove it, much less to demonstrate whether it's lasting or fleeting. In any event, says Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas of the Polish Academy of Sciences, there is "no contradiction" between pro-EU and pro-U.S. sentiment. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski agreed. Young Poles, including his university-student daughter, Aleksandra, have "no complexes" about Europe and America, he said. In fact, he hopes that as a member of the EU, Poland can persuade other Europeans to think along the same lines: "I think that Poles have a special task to shape the European thinking in such a way that it is no longer a question of who we love more--mommy or daddy, America or Europe."

All this presupposes that Poland and its fellow candidates for EU membership actually become members a year from now. They almost certainly will. The EU is holding the door open. All Poland and the others have to do is walk through it. First, however, like the Poles in June, voters in country after country will have their say in referendums. The big worry right now is voter turnout. When Hungarians voted in April, only 46 percent of the eligible voters showed up at the polls. A turnout much lower than that in Poland could precipitate a "deep political crisis," as Kwasniewski acknowledges. Whatever happens, in Poland and elsewhere, depends on what the massively pro-EU Gen-E voters do. For many of them, this is their first big political test. For all of them, it won't be their last.