Ten years in the EU: Snapshots from Central Europe

Polish, EU and NATO flags. Poland, May 2007. [Pawel Kabanski/Flickr]

On 1 May 2004, ten countries joined the EU: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta. On the 10th anniversary of the most extensive European enlargement ever, the EURACTIV network reflects on its achievements, and challenges.

The tenth anniversary is especially significant, as it is taking place three weeks before European Parliament elections, in which anti-EU parties are expected to make a particularly strong showing.

Polish MEPs have a say

EURACTIV Poland’s Krzysztof Kokoszczy?ski discusses the work of Polish MEPs, and whether they have managed to make an impact on the pan-European legislative body.

Kokoszczy?ski: There are 51 Polish MEPs in the European Parliament. The majority of them (28) are in the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP), with the European Conservative and Reformists group (ECR) taking second place, with 12 MEPs, followed by seven Socialists and Democrats (S&D) MEPs. Among these MEPs, there are a few who have proven to be very proficient in negotiating the intricacies of the European policymaking, and have received both national and European awards for their work.

A former Prime Minister of Poland, Jerzy Buzek, was President of the European Parliament between 2009 and 2012. He was the first, and is currently the only EU President, from a post-communist country, a fact that has been a source of significant pride in Poland.

Polish media has consistently watched the work of Polish MEPs in Brussels and Strasbourg – some for sensationalist purposes, others for genuine oversight, and assurance that they do good work there. In the latter category, a few names have been usually mentioned as examples of solid work, and ability to work in a European environment. Among them were Danuta Hübner, a former Polish Commissioner in the European Commission, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Ró?a Thun and Jan Olbrycht (all EPP), as well as Pawe? Kowal, Konrad Szyma?ski (both ECR), and Bogus?aw Liberadzki (S&D).

The topics covered by these MEPs speak for themselves. For example, Hübner is a specialist in economic and regional policy. Not surprisingly, budget matters, especially structural funds, have been closely followed in Poland. After the budget negotiations were finally settled late last year, the State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs praised the Polish MEPs for their efforts in securing as much funding as possible for Poland.

Climate and energy policy, two closely-related topics, were almost as important to Poland as the lEU budget for 2014-2020. Relying heavily on coal-fuelled power plants, Poland is hesitant about supporting any climate policies that do not acknowledge its unique circumstances. Furthermore, Poland is keen to gain more independence from Russian natural gas supplies, by exploiting significant domestic reserves of shale gas – also hoping that this would allow for reducing its reliance on coal. The government estimates the country’s shale reserves at 346-768 billion cubic metres.

Polish MEPs have been actively working towards these goals in the Parliament. Szyma?ski, a member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, was one of the main proponents of less restrictive regulation on shale gas exploration and exploitation.

Poles have also found themselves in the field of new technologies. Ró?a Thun was a big supporter of the Digital Agenda framework, and of getting rid of roaming fees within the EU, as well as other measures aimed at increasing European interconnectivity.

Finally, aware of their own good luck in Poland’s successful transition to democracy, Poles have not forgotten about their neighbours who are still struggling with the communist legacy.

Together with Sweden, Poland co-authored the Eastern Partnership programme. MEPs Saryusz-Wolski and Kowal are focusing on the Eastern aspect of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Both Saryusz-Wolski and Kowal have also been very active during the Ukrainian crisis, and have proven to be one of the main forces in setting the European Parliament’s approach to Ukraine.

Poles will choose their new MEPs on 25 May. The most recent polls give the main opposition party Law and Justice (ECR) a slight lead over the Civic Platform (EPP) party (also the senior party in the current coalition government) – 26.6% vs. 26.3%, respectively. Yet, the junior coalition partner, the Polish People’s Party, is also a member of the EPP. As they can expect about 6.5% share of the vote, it should prove enough to give the EPP a secure majority, estimated to be 22 seats from Poland in the next term.

Prominent Czechs speak out

On the occasion of the the Czech Republic’s decade-long EU membership, Anna Kuznická and Denisa Nováková of EURACTIV Czech Republic have gathered exclusive testimonies from the country’s most important politicians. The Czech Republic is known for its Eurosceptic public opinion, but politicians convey more positive messages.

Kuznická and Nováková: In 2003, when the referendum about the admission of the Czech Republic to the EU took place, 77 % of voters expressed their willingness to become part of the EU. 55 % cast their ballot, implying that more than a half of the overall Czech population wished to join the EU.

According to the survey, carried out by CVVM in the summer of 2013, 28% of the respondents expressed a positive attitude towards Czech membership in the EU. Conversely, 26% feel the opposite. Czechs were more prone to the middle course answer that EU is “neither a good nor a bad thing“. In the same survey, 43% of respondents states that they consider Czech membership in the EU as beneficial, and 41% not beneficial (16 % stated that they don’t know).

Miloš Zeman, president of the Czech Republic, told EURACTIV.cz  that 1 May 2004 had been the day the country reunited with its family.

“Our accession to the EU was more than joining a single market or provider of subsidies. It was in fact an admission to a family. By joining a family, you share their rules, behavior and culture,” he said.

The head of state said he thought of the EU as a cultural entity. “Because the Czech land has been for a long time part of a European culture, I therefore see our EU accession more as a return to an old family then an admission to a new one,” he added.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, who is a social democrat like Zeman, also said that his country had “returned” to the EU, stressing its deep European roots. Sobotka said he considered the country’s EU accession to be the most important moment in modern history, adding that it had provided the Czech Republic with better opportunities to defend its interests in a globalised world.

“We have a unique and equal opportunity to participate in solving problems which we would not be able to handle effectively on our own. The European Union guarantees peace, stability and prosperity, values which we learn to appreciate in the context of the troubled and rough history of the continent in the 20th century”, he said.

The Prime Minister also emphasised the benefits of EU membership – the growing respect for the rule of law, as well as the economic benefits. On the basis of EU solidarity rules, he said the Czech Republic has gained two times more than it gave to EU budget. In addition, the related inflow of foreign investment added 6% growth to the economy, the Prime Minister said.

Cyril Svoboda, minister of foreign affairs at the Czech Republic joined the EU, explained that EU membership gave Czechs the opportunity to demonstrate what they are really like: that they take issues seriously, and have a long term strategy.

But Svoboda regretted that Prague hasn’t always taken advantage of such opportunities. In this context, he expressed regrets for the efforts of eurosceptic ex-president Václav Klaus to block the adoption of the Lisbon treaty.

David Ondrá?ka, director of Transparency International, said that EU accession has been a transformational vision of joining an elite club, which confirms the Czech’s cultural and political affiliation with Europe.

“The situation evolved, Europe has a lot of problems and the EU has few recipes. However, the anchor is still really important to us, and we have no other alternative. Let’s try to approach the EU factually, self-confidently and actively”, Ondrá?ka noted, adding that the benefits the EU offers were much more important than the subsidies it provides.

Petr Kužel, president of the Czech chamber of Commerce, stressed that enlargement had brought significant economic growth not only to the acceding countries, but also to the older members. The accession of the Czech Republic has brought a massive influx of direct foreign investment, and the country’s negative balance of commerce was reversed, he explained. Another huge benefit for the Czech Republic is its engagement in the internal European market, which is the biggest economic area in the world, providing a huge potential to Czech entrepreneurs, he said.

Jan Mühlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe, also mentioned the role of the Czech Republic in NATO, which the country joined in March 1999, as an anchor for the country in the community of democratic countries.

Slovakia wants to remain ‘in the core’

The governmental position is clear – Slovakia, the only Visegrad member of the Eurozone – wants to remain in the “very core of all of the EU integration processes”, writes Zuzana Gabrižova, Chief Editor of EURACTIV Slovakia. The country is becoming more and more aware that there are costs attached to this ambition, like participation in the rescue mechanisms for the euro.

Gabrižova: Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Laj?ák said that the complex transformation of political, societal and economic relations in Slovakia would have hardly be possible without a European perspective and membership. “Thanks to the 2004 enlargement, Slovakia has become a true global actor,“ he added.

After 10 years, the Slovak economy rose from 57% of the EU average to 75%, the highest growth amongst its Visegrad neighbours. Freedom of movement, participation in the borderless Schengen area, and the adoption of the euro, are among the things that Slovaks consistently value the most.

However, the country was shocked when, in 2011, the centre-right government of Iveta Radi?ová collapsed, following a vote of no-confidence over the issue of strengthening the eurozone rescue mechanism (EFSF).

Since then, the social democratic government of Robert Fico has been the most “europositive” political force in the country, with Commission Vice President Maroš Šef?ovi? heading their list in the EU elections.

The rest of the political spectrum, mainly the centre-right political parties, has almost abandoned the pro-European space to the pragmatic and utilitarian rhetoric of the governing party SMER, explains sociologist Olga Gyarfasova.

Criticism of the way the EU is run is gaining strength in Slovakia as well, mostly for the parties which polls predict will cross the 5% threshold needed to be elected to the European Parliament. To a certain extent, Gyarfasova points out, this represents the long-awaited shift from an uncritical EU-phoria, and a decade’s membership in the EU.

To critically assess the last ten years, the Ministry of Foreign and European Issues published a report which, besides, summarizing the results, also names the remaining challenges. One of the biggest challenges at the national level is the ability of the state administration to effectively process the enormous EU agenda in a way that is transparent and inclusive for all stakeholders. There is also an important perceived need to improve the management of EU funds.

When it comes to policy priorities, Slovakia accentuates the need to lower the costs for the stabilisation of the eurozone for citizens, wants to improve its low participation in EU research programmes, and end discrimination in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Also, Slovakia claims it does not want to endanger its remaining industry by complying with the EU climate ambitions, and wants to find synergies in the EU on the diversification of energy supplies.

A recent Eurobarometer survey has showed that for the first time, A slightly larger number of Slovaks do not trust the EU (49%), compared to 47%, who say the EU is trustworthy.

The level of confidence is still higher in Slovakia than the EU average, especially when asked about the trust in EU institutions, which is significantly higher than towards national governmental bodies. 

On 1 May 2004, ten countries joined the EU: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta. In the meantime Slovenia joined the Eurozone in 2007, followed by Cyprus and Malta in 2008, Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011 and Latvia in 2014. Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in January 2007 and Croatia in July 2013.

The Eurozone crisis has affected unevenly the old as well as the new members. Of the new members, Cyprus was heavily hit, but it was largely a “contagion effect” from the Greek government-debt crisis and especially the ‘haircut’ in which holders of Greek governmental bonds accepted substantial losses. Slovenia was the fastest growing eurozone member in 2007 but was badly hit a year later by the global financial crisis. It dodged the need for an international bailout last December by pumping some €3.3 billion into its troubled banks.

Older members have feared higher competition from companies in new member states after the 2004 Eastern enlargement of the European Union. But ten years later, hardly any of these fears have materialised, a new survey reveals [read English version of article by EURACTIV Germany].

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