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Mixed feelings among Visegrad four

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First it was the old EU member states who didn’t want to share with the newcomers. Now, with the entry of Romania and Bulgaria just around the corner, it’s the Visegrad Four (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) that fear getting a smaller portion of the EU’s honey-pot.

Although the majority of those polled in the new member states are happy to have joined the EU, many are disgruntled that they haven’t gained as much from entry as they had hoped. As a result, the prospect of more countries joining is not necessarily welcomed with open arms.

Differing views

According to the Eurobarometer survey published this September, support for EU membership among Czechs, Slovaks and Poles has increased since entering the EU in May 2004. The odd one out among the Visegrad countries is Hungary, where support for the country’s membership has fallen to a record low (42%). Gábor András, from the Hungarian TARKI research institute, says the decrease “could be explained by the failure [of accession to meet the] high expectations of Hungarian people.” On the other hand, Michal Wenzel, from the Polish research institute CBOS, comments on the opposite tendency seen in Poland: “Polish people have been relieved to find out that no dramatic change occurred after accession. The majority have not experienced benefits from the integration, but the black scenarios have not come true either.”

The Eurobarometer poll also showed that future prospects for farmers, outsourcing, an increase in organised crime and drug trafficking, as well as the loss of influence of smaller countries are on the list of fears of the public in the Visegrad Group countries. It’s important to note, however, that despite common aspects, the strength of concerns differs from country to country, with the Czechs being among the most anxious about money.

Bound by history

Differences in attitudes are also reflected in their level of enthusiasm for further EU expansion. Zuzana Kršjaková from Prague points out that “the reason for fears of further enlargement is basically the same as it was in old member states in 2004: cheap labour coming from the East and Cohesion and Structural Funds going to the newcomers.“ And yet Czechs, despite their financial fears, are generally in favour, with Poles and Slovaks also supporting the entry of new countries. Among the ten new member states, Hungary is one of the more sceptical, but it still stands up for the right of their neighbours to join. István Szent-Iványi, a Hungarian MEP, thinks that “Hungarian society as a whole is not afraid of the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. What makes the question more difficult is that for historical reasons the Hungarians have reservations about Romania.”

The roots of today’s grudge go back to 1920, when, following the end of the First World War, Transylvania was annexed to Romania. Nowadays, the population of this area, which covers over 100,000km², counts around 1.4 million Hungarians who hope, under the flag of the EU, to symbolically return the motherland. Thus, Erika Törzsök, from the European Comparative Minority Research institute, declares that the accession of Romania would be a “significant historical chance for the Hungarian nation to live under the same economic and political conditions”.

It is interesting that despite past antagonism and the fear that new and even poorer member states will reduce their share of EU funds, the new member states are still more in favour of further enlargement than ‘Old Europe’. One of the reasons for this is that new member states, unlike the old ones, contribute less to the common budget than they get back. Moreover, having lived for decades behind the Iron Curtain, their people have more understanding for countries that share a similar historical experience.

Money, money, money

But even if they share a certain historical tie, the Visegrad countries are doing their best to make sure that the accession of more member states does not mean that they lose out. The negotiations over the EU budget for 2007-2013 have already started and the new member states are having to fight hard with the founders to get an acceptable slice of the EU pie. As a result, consolidating the budget as soon as possible is a priority for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, who fear that once Romania and Bulgaria are EU members they will receive less.

There are also fears that the entry of Romania and Bulgaria will mean a loss of competitiveness for the Visegrad group. According to Eurostat, the economic growth rate in Romania and Bulgaria is almost 2% higher than in the Visegrad region. Moreover, labour costs and taxes are even lower than those of the new EU members. To mitigate these concerns, it is worth casting a glance at the latest United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report that shows the inflow of foreign capital to the ten new member states has jumped by 69% since accession to the EU. Also, although the two EU candidate countries are the main recipients of foreign direct investment in South-East Europe, they are still less popular among investors than the Visegrad countries which joined last May.

Whatever the outcome of the budget, it is clear that Romania and Bulgaria, like the other new members, will receive much less from the EU coffers than the newcomers of the 80s and 90s (Greece, Portugal, Spain and Austria, Finland, Sweden) did. It is time, as Mr Szent-Iványi points out, “for member states to stop haggling over small amounts and remember their common goal: to increase the competitiveness of the Community.”