East EU Members Mark Decade in the Club
For elevator engineer Leonard Kukiel, Poland’s entry into the European Union helped him get a good job and improved the roads and railways in his country. For former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the 28-member European bloc is anti-democratic.
Ever since 10 nations joined the EU a decade ago, several former Soviet satellite states in eastern and central Europe have undergone monumental change – seeing greater access to the West, enhanced economic growth and freer movement of goods and people. But it has also left some people seething under the impression that they threw away the yoke of an overbearing Moscow only to replace it with an unaccountable Brussels.
On May 1, 2004, in its biggest single expansion, the EU took in 10 countries with some 74 million people. Seven entrants had been either former Soviet republics or once part of the Warsaw Pact: The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. The other countries were Malta, Cyprus and Slovenia.
Poland, which is about as big as all the other entrants combined, is among those taking stock.
Politically, some say membership in the bloc and a general gravitation westward has offered an enhanced sense of security to some of those seven countries in recent weeks, as newly assertive Russia has flexed its muscles in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.
Economically, a decade in one of the world’s most exclusive clubs has brought galloping growth to countries like Poland, even at time when other parts of the EU were beset by a crippling financial crisis.
“Poland and other countries in the region seized this chance offered to them by history and used it well,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Tuesday, as he presented a report on his country’s decade in the EU.
EU accession, the report said, helped Poland increase exports to EU partners, brought funds to help modernize roads, bridges, railways and waste-water treatment and gave Poles greater access to schools and jobs in more-developed countries to the West.
Poland’s gross domestic product has grown 49 percent since 2004, while the overall EU economy grew 11 percent over the same period, the report said. Polish exports to EU partners tripled over that span, reaching 115 billion euros (about $160 billion) last year.
“For me, it is good that we are in the union,” said Kukiel, who works in Warsaw for the U.S.-based Otis Elevator Co. – a job that he said wouldn’t likely have been possible without the EU. “The country also profited, I can see that when I travel: Many good roads and highways make travel faster and more comfortable. And visa-free travel is a very nice thing, too.”
For the Czech Republic, David Marek, chief economist at Patria Finance investment bank in Prague, said EU membership had “an essential effect” on its economic development, with exports rising some 130 percent since 2004 and huge foreign-investment inflows – 250 billion koruna ($12.5 billion) in 2005 alone.
But Klaus, the former Czech president, has criticized EU rules that have given small countries like his disproportionately little power compared to larger members like Germany, France and Poland. He has called the EU an “anti-democratic project,” and compared the bloc to Soviet-era dictatorship.
Hungary is a good example of how EU membership cuts both ways. It has been among the biggest beneficiaries of EU development funds, netting over 24 billion euros in the 2007-2013 budget cycle. That’s enough to cover 97 percent of its state development projects.
But Hungary’s economic growth since 2004 was just 9 percent, according to the report, and polls suggest Hungarians are among the least-satisfied members of the EU. Brussels has also been a restraining influence on Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government has been accused of weakening of democratic checks and balances. Many Hungarians back him: His right-wing, populist party won a new two-thirds majority in parliament in elections last month.
Orban has often complained that the EU meddles in Hungarian affairs, on issues ranging from Hungary’s new constitutions and state control over the media to the bloc’s recent decision to examine his policy allowing Hungarians to distill limited amounts of palinka, a local fruit brandy, without having to pay excise taxes.
Orban has said Hungary would not become a “colony” of the EU.
The far right and the far left have most vocally expressed a desire to leave the EU. Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, which increased its support to 20 percent in April’s election, wants Hungary out of the EU, and its politicians have burned the EU flag at rallies.
In Estonia, a small country of 1.3 million, joining the EU marked a return to European roots and values that it stuck to even during the nearly half-century that it was in the Soviet Union. The bloc remains popular there and in fellow Baltic countries Latvia and Lithuania.