Many of the nations of central and east Europe have spent most of their history as components of one empire or another. People in this region are used to be at the receiving end of directives and planning from the center. Though ostensibly fervid nationalists, they are ill at ease with their re-founded and re-found nation-states.
The identity of the denizens of these parts is more regional than national and evolving towards the supra-national. People are from this or that city, or district, or village. And they aspire to become citizens of Europe and the great experiment of the European Union. They are only hesitantly and tentatively Macedonians, or Moldovans, or Belarusians, or Kazakhs, or Yugoslavs.
The likes of the Czechs, the Estonians and the Slovenes are well-suited to become constituents of a larger whole. They make better Europeans than the British, or the Norwegians. They have survived far mightier and more bloated bureaucracies than Brussels'. They are unsurpassed manipulators of officialdom. In the long run, the new members stand to benefit the most from the EU's enlargement and to form its unwaveringly loyal core.
Not yet the full-fledged individualists of the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism - these nations are consensus-seeking team-players. Tutored by centuries of occupation and hardship, they are instinctual multilateralists. They are avid Westerners by persuasion, if not yet in practice, or geography.
Moreover, their belated conversion to the ways of the market is an undisguised blessing.
Though still a promise largely unfulfilled, the countries in transition could now leapfrog whole stages of development by adopting novel technologies and through them the expensive Western research they embody. The East can learn from the West's mistakes and, by avoiding them, achieve a competitive edge.
Technology is a social phenomenon with social implications. It fosters entrepreneurship and social mobility. By allowing the countries in transition to skip massive investments in outdated technologies - the cellular phone, the Internet, cable TV, and the satellite become shortcuts to prosperity.
Poverty is another invaluable advantage.
With the exception of Slovenia, Estonia, Croatia and the Czech Republic - the population of the countries in transition is poor, sometimes inordinately so. Looming and actual penury is a major driver of entrepreneurship, initiative and innovation. Wealth formation and profit seeking are motivated by indigence, both absolute and relative. The poor seek to better their position in the world by becoming middle-class. They invest in education, in small businesses, in consumer products, in future generations.
The Germans - sated and affluent - are unlikely to experience a second economic miracle. The Serbs, Albanians, Ukrainians, Poles, or Romanians won't survive without one. The West is just discovering this truth and is opening its gates - albeit xenophobically and intermittently - to poorer foreigners. For what is immigration if not the importation of ambitious indigents, certain to revitalize the EU's rich and somnolent economies?
The countries of central and eastern Europe, thus, stand to benefit twice.
Their own economic Renaissance is spurred on by a striving home-grown proletariat. And they are uniquely positioned - geographically and culturally - to export destitute go-getters to the wealthy West and to reap the rewards of the inevitable spurt in entrepreneurship and innovation that follows. Remittances, returning expatriates, thriving and networked Diasporas would do more to uplift the countries of origin than any amount of oft-misallocated multilateral aid.
This cornucopian vision is threatened from numerous sides.
Geopolitical instability, resurgent trade protectionism, dysfunctional global capital markets and banks - can all reverse the course of a successful transition to market economies. Still, the more pernicious threats are from the inside: venal, delegitimized politicians, brain drain, crumbling infrastructure, cheap foreign competition, or inter-ethnic tensions.
Perhaps the most serious hindrance to progress would be a fanatic emulation by the countries in transition of the European Union. An overly generous social safety net, a sprawling bureaucracy, inane laws and regulations about everything from the environment to the welfare of pigs, paralyzed decision-making processes and deleterious subventions - can all scupper progress and depress entrepreneurship and innovation.
The cautionary tale of eastern Germany - smothered by western red tape and lethargy - should forewarn every new member and aspiring candidate. They need to join the European Union in the hope of helping to reform it from the inside. They should not succumb to the allure of German largesse, nor acquire the French, Spanish, Greek and Portuguese addiction to it. They cannot afford to.