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He was born Karol Wojtyla in a small town in Poland, says David Edmonds, but now lives in the Vatican in Western Europe. For much of his life, the Iron Curtain separated his birthplace from his current home. Now it's been pulled down and the process of uniting the one side with the other has begun. For Pope John Paul II that's something of a miracle. "Europe has two lungs", he once said, "it will never breathe easily until it uses both of them.
In 1955 his homeland's capital was the site for the signing of the Soviet defence agreement. The Warsaw Pact helped cement the division of Europe into two blocs. We live in extraordinary times -- on 8th July 1997 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were formally invited to join the erstwhile enemy, NATO, and the process is likely to take just a few months.
As for the European Union, it's also laid out the welcome mat for these three countries, and in addition, for Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus. Other aspirants, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia, have been promised entry further down the line, but they will, as it were, have to wipe their shoes first. 'Become a little more like us, a little more quickly', is the message for the slow-track states eager to cut into the fast lane. The EU is currently a club of 15 - over the next few decades, its membership might more than double.
'Europe' is a label which has long been appropriated by the West. When the West talks of entry into Europe, it means entry into its West European institutions. So it would be ironic if the nations of the East proved to be better Europeans than those of the West.
A typical Dane may view the EU as a threat to national sovereignty. For a Pole, entry may be an expression of sovereignty -- the sign that it has finally emerged from under the shadow of the Hammer-and-Sickle. Reaction to the Euro may vary from a German citizen loyal to the ever-so-steady Deutschmark and an Englishman, misty-eyed about his royal-headed pound, to a Czech or Hungarian, for whom the koruna and forint were for so long under communism the butt of national humour. "How do you increase the value of a one zloty coin - drill two holes in it and sell it as a button for one zloty fifty" - that joke told to me by a former Polish prime minister.
But as the political and economic map of Europe is reconfigured, huge questions remain unanswered. For starters, what actually is Europe? Does it have a cultural component? Can majority Muslim nations (Albania, Turkey), be encompassed within a predominantly Christian continent?
Where will the new fault lines emerge in the New Europe, how will European security be guaranteed and should we fear for Europe's minorities?
Will there be closer ties between anti-European parties, or does the notion of a 'nationalist-International' represent something of a contradiction in terms? And as for the idea of the nation state -- the driving force of modern history -- is that itself history? The Pope may be right - Europe's respiratory problems may be over. But don't hold your breath - these issues will take years to resolve."
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