News - April 22, 2004

EU enlargement: hopes and fears

There are big changes awaiting the European Union as ten new countries join on 1 May this year. There are many enthusiasts, but sceptics as well, fearing for example mass migration or loss of cultural values. Wb asked the opinion of Wageningen students from the 'new' Europe: the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia.

‘Mentally it is difficult to lose our full sovereignty’
Poland, Anna Szaijkowska

Erasmus student (Law)

“I am an EU enthusiast. Membership of the EU has been a strategic goal of Polish policy since 1989. The EU will gain a strong partner determined to maintain peace in the region. The opponents to integration are in the minority in Poland. Farmers are afraid of competition from other countries, and indeed, the Polish agricultural sector is about 30 years behind the most developed European countries. But we do have many great products, including things like the famous ewe's milk cheese, oscypek, produced by Tatran highlanders. Don’t forget our clear vodka, and Polish beer is as good as Czech and German! EU sceptics are saying that by joining the EU Poland will lose its political independence. This seems to be a typically Polish concern: mentally it is very difficult to surrender a part of Poland's only recently gained full sovereignty. There are several popular myths connected to Poland's integration. The Poles are afraid that Germans are going to come and buy up massive tracts of land especially. The Polish government fought desperately for a transitional period on this subject but according to recent surveys Germans are not interested in buying Polish land. Another problem that is nothing more than a populist slogan is that there will be a flow of cheap Polish labour into the EU countries after accession. But the simple fact is that Poles who wanted to seek employment in the EU countries have already done so. In fact we are more concerned about a brain drain, as countries like Great Britain hope that well qualified Poles will be willing to work abroad. I hope more Europeans will visit Poland and discover its beauty: the golden sands of the Baltic beaches in the North, the wonderful Bieszczady and the Tatry Mountains, and many beautiful cities with fascinating influences of western, eastern and Jewish culture. Polish people are very hospitable and friendly. There is even a proverb: ‘a guest in the house is God in the house’ which all Poles take very seriously!”

‘If you weaken your economy, you are the right candidate to join EU’
Slovakia, Tomas Mudrak

PhD student Management Studies

“I am rather sceptical. Things are going too fast and the integration process is quite disorganised. My impression is that neither the EU member countries nor the candidate countries know what to expect from each other. So we will witness many trial-and-error situations, as things look good on paper but are difficult to manage in reality. Many bureaucratic procedures will be simplified and foreign investors will be able to safely invest their money in production, agriculture, and infrastructure in Slovakia and the other new member countries. The experiences of Portugal, Spain and Greece prove that joining the EU community is beneficial. However, the situation of united Germany clearly demonstrates the bottlenecks of a united Europe. I think that we have already lost all we could possibly lose - all strategic enterprises, such as Slovak Telecom, are now owned by Western countries like Germany, Italy and the US. At the same time, all internationally-competitive Slovakian enterprises, especially heavy machinery factories and large farm syndicates, were intentionally closed down or their operation and legal integrity were seriously jeopardised by the current Slovakian government. This was probably one of the requirements imposed by the EU on the candidate countries: ‘If you weaken your economy, then you are the right candidate to join EU’! This means cheap labour, cheap land, and non-competitive home enterprises. I know that in the long-run EU membership pays off, but I am concerned about the lost potential that Slovakia and other candidate countries used to have several years ago. But we will see...”
‘Lack of information feeds fear’

Hungary, Judith Cottely
MSc Tourism leisure & environment

“There are a lot of EU sceptics in my country. I cannot predict whether they are right or wrong. But people certainly fear what is going to happen simply because of a lack of information. Students like me are well informed, but especially old people are not. I hope my country will start a new life now. Probably we are going towards stronger democracy. I think Hungary belongs to the EU, as we have strong historic links with the rest of the continent including Germany. Personally I am very happy that the borders with the rest of the EU will be open soon: waiting in stress more than three months for your visa and feeling discriminated against because of your nationality is so annoying.”

‘Some are more equal than others’
Lithuania, Lolita Kursataite

MSc tourism leisure & environment

“Most people in my country, especially the younger generation, are very enthusiastic about joining the EU. And why not? We celebrated joining NATO with fireworks and for joining the EU we'll celebrate with 5 concerts in Vilnius! ‘Euro-‘ is a magic word right now in Lithuania: we have "Europe hotel", Euro chocolates and even Euro beer. A lot of west Europeans don't know this side of Europe and tend to regard the whole area as ‘Eastern Europe’. In fact, the Baltic countries are an ‘island’ surrounded by Slav neighbours. Why should other EU members be glad that Lithuania is joining? Because we have nice songs, good beer and one of the best basketball teams in Europe! Lithuania will benefit from the older member's elaborate political and legislative systems. We want to take the best from your experiences. I think a lot more people will visit Lithuania now. This will not only benefit the tourist industry but lead to better awareness and understanding of each other as well. I am disappointed that most EU countries have announced a transition period for labour force movement for the 10 new members of five to seven years. I still have to get special permits for staying and working in the Netherlands or any other EU member country. In the EU we are all equal but somehow some are more equal then others?”

‘The Estonian population will become more colourful’
Estonia, Ele Luiga

MSc Landscape architecture

“Estonia has a lot to offer the EU, but it just depends whether the EU is interested in maintaining these things or smashing them under general rules. We have managed to keep old traditions next to new ones. In addition to the old, Estonians have done a good job by bringing Estonia to near the top of the mobile and info technology countries list. While it is still quite difficult to pay with a credit card in restaurants in the Netherlands, in Estonia we can even use it to pay in some taxicabs. It is possible to buy bus-tickets with mobile phones and paying by mobile is becoming more popular in shops as well. Estonia has a lots to offer when it comes to making everyday life simpler and buying time. Estonia also has many unique food products that are different from those of other countries. Our healthy milk products in particular should earn a place in the market. As much as we have offer to EU, we also have a lot to learn from EU countries, especially good urban planning skills and nature conservation. It is also certain that the population of Estonia will become much more ‘colourful’, and all advantages and disadvantages that are connected with multiculturalism will soon be an issue in Estonia. I think that because of our long-long history of being occupied by many other countries, the Estonian spirit is now undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. In the run-up to joining the EU, we have not had time to concentrate on ourselves. It is much easier to adopt things from the West instead of inventing them ourselves. And sometimes there is no time even to consider what is appropriate for our country. That is why I am afraid that one day Estonia will lose itself.”

‘The cost of living will rise, but our salaries might not’
Slovakia, Katarina Urbanska

MSc Landscape Architecture

“It took a while for it to sink in with us that we are really going to join the EU. I am excited, but it is also a big unknown for us. Hopefully, the big advantage will be ease of travelling, the possibility to stay longer somewhere you like without having problems with immigration officers and so on. For the Dutch and other EU members, it will be a great chance now to visit Slovakia more easily. Our mountains the High Tatras are already popular. Our typical villages are still alive in the northern part of Slovakia, with lots of beautiful caves, castles and botanical gardens, and many foreigners come to Slovakia for the crystal and cut glass. Many restaurants also cook typically Slovak food. The capital city Bratislava is currently being restored so it is just getting better and better. The historical part of Bratislava is full of small streets, with open air pubs and restaurants. Slovaks are open, friendly people. Of course it’s hard to generalise but we are very hospitable and welcome all the new people who come to visit. Another advantage of EU membership hopefully will be better job opportunities. I am little sceptical about the EU as well. Maybe the cost of living will rise but our salaries will not. Who knows? I guess it all depends on the governments.”

‘I hope we will keep our own identity’
Slovenia, Meta Mihelcic

MSc Tourism leisure & environment

“I reckon that joining the EU will help Slovenia become more visible and more easily accessible, especially for those countries that need a visa at the moment. Apart from the last 70 years' connection with the Balkan countries, before that we were always part of either Austrian or Italian history, so joining the EU is not so strange. I sincerely hope we will keep, though many compatriots still need to gain, awareness of our own traditions, which will determine our identity and position in Europe. But the EU does not only bring advantages: there are threats to our culture and small businesses. Our skills will manifest how we manage to cope. To gain a ticket to Europe we had to meet many requirements and make many adjustments, which were not all to our advantage, but that was the price we had to pay. Traders announce that imported goods will get cheaper due to the abolition of customs duties. However, this will impose even harder competition on local producers. The position of the food manufacturing industry will worsen. Slovenia had free trade agreements with South Eastern Europe, but the EU arrangements are less favourable. Open borders will make movements easier, although the flows will not be as free as announced, evidently because of the fears of the ‘old’ EU members. Nevertheless, I hope that the remaining European countries will meet the requirements and follow us into a joint Europe.”

Hugo Bouter