20 August 2009

United States of Europe

Recently, Mirena and I took a road trip from Sofia, Bulgaria to Thessaloniki, Greece to visit the IKEA store there, and then spend a few days enjoying the sun and sea a little bit further south. We had made nearly the same trip in 2006—before Bulgaria entered the EU—and were pleasantly surprised at how quick and easy the border crossing procedures had become. Three years ago, a line of cars and trucks stretched back at least one kilometer from the border, and the whole experience added over an hour to the trip. Each country still has an exit control as well as immigration/customs, but the whole thing—including waiting in a short line—took less than 15 minutes.

Although they are the newest EU members, Bulgaria and Romania will eventually join Schengen, meaning these border controls will be totally eliminated, as they already have been throughout most of the rest of Europe. Then a trip to a neighboring country will be little more than us driving to another state for some shopping and/or a weekend getaway (eventually this will also include exotic Istanbul if & when Turkey joins the EU.) Now, I realize that language and cultural differences make this a bigger deal both in practice and psychologically, and nationalism runs deep in the Balkans—so a significant percentage of people will be more than happy to stay in their own country regardless of the benefits of this easier international travel. Never the less, this openness: namely the free flow of goods, people, and money—the very pillars of the European Union—is inexorably binding EU member nations together into something that is starting to look more and more like a super-nation. While this causes concern for some, I see it as a hopeful future—especially for the Balkans, which has been beset with petty infighting, fragmented markets, and most troubling—systemic corruption. In this new, friction-free super-nation countries will be forced to compete on a more or less level playing field: for investments, for shoppers, for weekend tourist, and even permanent residents.
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