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By Don Belt

As the European Union expands to 25 nations, its 74 million new citizens wonder how their lives will change.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Stanislaw Nowak wasn't much of a communist. In the 1980s Nowak, a young fruit grower in the hilly Malopolska region of southern Poland, was unhappy with the price that the state-run collective was paying for apples, pears, and plums. But while other farmers were grumbling like good Polish communists, Nowak was cramming two tons of fruit into his one-ton truck and setting out over bad roads to distant cities—Warsaw, Poznaní, Gdansk—to sell on the black market. He traveled alone, squeezed in between bushel baskets with barely enough room to turn the steering wheel. If the police stopped him, he'd plead poverty and tiny mouths to feed, and send them home with an armload of fruit.
When communism crumbled in 1989, leaving many Eastern-bloc farmers to ponder their fate around the kitchen table, Nowak invested his savings in a larger truck, planted more trees, and began marketing dried fruit and bottles of homemade sliwowica, a brandy made from plums. And in 1994, when Poland applied to join the European Union (EU), Nowak, like everyone else, joked about clueless Eurocrats who don't know a sheep from a sheepdog, but he also started planning ahead. "No matter what system you live under, you always have to work hard," Nowak, now 43, explains. "But you also have to think. And sometimes you have to take risks."

There's a word in Polish, sprytny, that describes Nowak's mentality—a playful, combative, opportunistic state of mind, which has helped the Poles survive one invasion after another for the past thousand years. The most recent—Soviet-imposed communism—set out to obliterate sprytny from the face of the Earth, using terror as an instrument of persuasion. Even in populations as resilient as the Poles, the fear it dispersed took a toll on the minds of ordinary people, like a toxic mist in the air that settles over a town and enters the collective bloodstream, rendering its people passive and lethargic.
Eight of the ten countries joining the European Union this month—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia—ingested that poison for 50 years, which makes their decision to engage the freewheeling capitalists of Europe all the more audacious. To succeed, they'll need to get communism out of their system, and quickly. But as a taxi driver in Kraków put it, "We were sick for 50 years. It's going to take some time for the symptoms to disappear."

The European Union wasn't meant to heal the sick; it was designed to create wealth. Founded in 1951 as a trade alliance, the EU has grown cautiously, from a cozy group of six at the beginning to 15 member states in 1995, all of them in Western Europe. By integrating their economies and lowering tariffs, these countries created a common market for goods and services, achieving unprecedented levels of prosperity. They also raised the standard of living in poorer EU regions through development grants and subsidies, along with the demand for resources and cheap labor. Today Europe Inc., headquartered in Brussels, is poised to become a global behemoth—a market of 455 million people with a combined GDP of 10 trillion dollars, making it second only to the United States as a political and economic superpower.

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Online Extra
Get an update on Turkey's bid to join the European Union, and how this month's expansion may affect its chances.
How can new members of the EU retain their national identity?
Flashback to 1947 when a portrait photographer's bucolic backdrop stands stark amidst the ruins of war-torn Warsaw, Poland.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The European Union traces its roots to 1950, when French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman and France's economic planning commissioner, Jean Monnet, proposed integrating the coal and steel industries of Western Europe. By pooling these natural resources, Schuman and Monnet hoped to provide political and economic stability to a region long divided by war. Six countries—France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands—signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951, which set up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and marked the first step toward the political and economic integration of Europe.

—Cate Lineberry
Did You Know?

Related Links
Europa: Gateway to the European Union
Learn more about the EU at its official website.
History of European Integration
Explore this map from the University of Oregon, which details the history of the European Union's expansion.
A-Z Index to European Union Websites
Use this index to the European Union's websites to get more information on specific issues.


Kotlowski, Dean, ed. The European Union: From Jean Monnet to the Euro. Ohio University and Swallow Press, 2000.
Leonard, Dick. Guide to the European Union, 8th ed. Economists Books, 2002.
Pagden, Anthony, and Lee Hamilton, eds. The Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union. Cambridge University Press, 2002.


NGS Resources
Funk, McKenzie. "Where Next." National Geographic Adventure (January/February 2002), 36.

Reid, T. R. "
The New Europe." National Geographic (January 2002), 32-47.
Beddingfield, Katie. "Rolling Out the Euro." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 2001), 13-14.
Abercrombie, Thomas J. "Czechoslovakia: The Velvet Divorce." National Geographic (September 1993), 2-37.
Smardz, Zofia. "The Opening of Eastern Europe." National Geographic Traveler (November/December 1990), 26-30.


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