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The EU and you
Written by: Monika Mudranincová & Alice Ozimá
How will ordinary citizens react
to the changes that EU accession will bring? We looked beyond politics
to bring you the views of a wide spectrum of people whose lives
will be directly affected.
DISCUSSIONS ABOUT the Czech Republic's EU accession now take place
as if it were a done deal. It seems that most people are aware of
the advantages and expect improved conditions, particularly in business,
despite increased competition. However, accession could also bring
striking changes for the worse for some social and professional
groups. In the days leading up to the referendum, it's likely that
the campaign for accession will focus increasingly on the concerns
of average citizens.
Jitka Ryšavá of the Czech Republic Regional Development Center assures
us that changes following accession will not be as dramatic as some
might think. "It's more a process of integration," she
says. 70% of Czech exports already go to EU countries. Even the
legislative changes won't be so dramatic. Harmonization of laws
began six years ago and has, in fact, been completed. However, the
most recent studies, conducted in January by the Center for Public
Opinion Research at the Czech Republic Academy of Sciences, indicates
that the conditions for this country's accession as negotiated in
Brussels failed to live up to the public's expectations. 37% of
the respondents are disappointed with the results. Only 6% of respondents
claim that the negotiations exceeded their expectations. But in
the view of many, the opinions that our negotiators did a bad job
are false and serve only political squabbling. "The topic of
our EU accession is terribly misused here," opines Martin Opočenský,
a doctor of internal medicine at the Thomayer faculty hospital.
He thinks it's necessary to look at accession's long-term effects,
which will be positive. "We are too self-absorbed as a nation,
and people are unable to see the coherency in a broader context,"
In fact, local entrepreneurs probably see this coherency. They agree
that they won't feel too great a change, and they're sure they can
succeed on the larger market. "Besides most of our business
subjects enjoying a substantially larger market, as members we will
be able to take part in decisions about EU rules," says Vladimír
Starosta, a co-owner of OK Trans, a shipping firm, and the president
of ČESMAD, an association of highway transporters, adding that it's
better to be involved than to stand to one side. Kvido Štěpánek,
a co-owner of Isolit Bravo, who was named Entrepreneur of the Year
2002 in Ernst & Young's competition, points out that it's important
to feel at home throughout the EU, but it's also important to start
working on employees' linguistic skills: "For example, Northern
Rhineland shouldn't be any more exotic than Southern Moravia for
There are many Czechs who don't see our accession to the EU as a
new opportunity. True, the cited research indicates that 66% of
the respondents would vote for accession, but there are certain
social groups and professional organizations that fear the changes.
Neglecting their fate could lead to a negative response to the June
referendum. "We must pay attention to those who have concerns:
we must consider their social positions, whether their standard
of living will drop significantly," says the new state secretary
for European affairs, Jan Kohout, who will run the campaign leading
up to the vote. "Each of these groups must receive correct,
understandable answers to their specific questions."
Others can be heard bemoaning the agreed conditions. "Farmers
are dissatisfied with their subsidies. On the other hand, they don't
get anything at all from the Union," says Ryšavá. However,
farmer Jana Radičová sees the issue more realistically. "As
newcomers, we must adapt to conditions. I expect our accession to
lead to more business and closer cooperation with neighboring countries,"
she says optimistically.
Customs exemplifies a profession that will be almost fatefully affected
by EU accession. According to spokeswoman Nina Psotová, official
sources of the General Customs Directorate in Prague state that
one of the measures being prepared in connection with incorporation
of the customs administration into European structures will be a
gradual reduction in the number of customs workers. In the first
year following EU accession, some customs administration employees
are expected to be transferred to other Czech Republic Police units
- e.g., to fire brigades, the penal service, court guards, or regular
police forces. "We ordinary customs workers are looking at
our possible accession to the Union with concerns. We're afraid
for our work, and we have no idea how the government will take care
of us," says Milan Karas (31), a worker at the Customs Office
in Jindřichův Hradec, not concealing his worries. "The customs
administration says that about 3,500 of our current 8,500 employees
should be let go." Karas has been earning a living as a customs
worker for 11 years, and he can't imagine losing his job and its
security. In purely professional terms, it would be better for him
if we didn't enter the EU.
Although the changes associated with accession won't be pleasant
for everyone, most of our respondents agreed that a "No"
in the June referendum would be harmful to this country. Participation
in the referendum will be very important. True, preliminary research
sounds optimistic (79% of respondents intend to vote), but it would
be a mistake to think it's all decided already. "If people
don't identify with accession, they'll get the feeling that someone
is forcing something on them, and that could be bad," Kohout
is quick to point out.
Driven to compete
profession: co-owner of transport firm
The owner of one of the largest highway transport
firms in this country is looking forward to each business
opportunity that EU accession will bring. He believes
that Czech transporters are competitive, currently
being limited by many administrative obstacles that
will fall away with accession. But he thinks a firm
can succeed only if it develops a first-rate team
with linguistic and other skills.
HIGHWAY transport is the worst business, since it's
on wheels," says Vladimír Starosta, the co-owner
of OK Trans, which is one of the largest domestic
highway transport operators. Starosta founded his
company 13 years ago, just after the revolution, when
ČSAD and Čechofracht held a virtual monopoly on highway
transport here. Much has changed since then: the firm
has grown to have 235 employees and 95 vehicles in
its fleet. Three years ago Starosta became the president
of ČESMAD Bohemia, an association of highway transporters
that brings together 80% of all highway transporters
in this country.
As a representative of the association and the owner
of a transport firm, he's looking forward to the new
opportunities that will open up to carriers following
EU accession. "There's just too much pressure
now. Every new opportunity could bring business,"
Starosta says, noting that the already highly competitive
environment among carriers will become even more so.
On the other hand, many administrative restrictions
that severely diminish Czech transporters' competitiveness
on the European market will be eliminated. Above all,
waiting periods at borders will be shortened. "Every
truck spends at least one and a half months waiting
at borders each year, and when a truck isn't moving,
it isn't making any money," explains Starosta.
Highway transport among EU member states will be possible
without special permits, of which the Czech government
currently issues only a limited number. Within two
to five years following accession, carriers will have
access to so-called cabotage - that is, transport
between two locations within a foreign country. During
the negotiations the Germans pushed through cabotage
limitations on Czech transporters, and that now remains
their final handicap. This angers Starosta, because
Slovenia, for example, is not thus limited. "True,
cabotage may account for only 2% of one's entire business,
but it's a matter of principle. I have the people,
the know-how, I have everything, but I can't use it
Starosta believes that now it all depends on how well
we take advantage of the new business opportunities.
"If we want to succeed, we must be a small fish
in a large pond, we have to be quick and flexible,"
he opines. He sees his colleagues as a top-flight
national soccer team that's ready to join the European
league. In order to ensure that his team is better
than the others, OK Trans employees have already been
taking language courses for three months, as well
as courses in marketing and self-assertion training,
along with purely specialized schooling for mechanics
The holder of the "Ecoagriculturist 2002"
title (from the annual contest by the Chamber of Agriculture
for using ecological products and technologies) left the comfort
of the city 12 years ago and set about building a farm where
the animals live happily and visitors enjoy the beneficial
effects of an anti-stress cure. For her, EU accession will
mean large financial expenditures and adapting to the market.
HOWEVER, Jana Radičová, the driving force behind the firm,
has no time to spare. She sometimes rises at three in the
morning to figure out what all she will have to pay when our
country becomes a part of the EU. "I am certainly in
favor of accession," she says with conviction, "but
it would be better for me if we were to become members in
2005. That would allow me to buy land, because I'm afraid
that land prices will increase and exceed my financial means,"
she confides. Her farm currently uses 800 hectares, of which
she owns 250. She wants to buy the rest for CZK 7 million
by taking out a 30-year loan.
She says that she is troubled by an incomplete state agricultural
policy, and she believes that the EU takes a more compact
approach towards its farmers. Radičová participates in seminars
organized by the Chamber of Agriculture about new laws and
methods of subsidizing in her sector and travels abroad for
experience. She isn't one to reach out for subsidies, although
she still depends on them. "In the EU, we will receive
one-third of the subsidies enjoyed by farmers in other member
countries, but that should even out in 2006. Unless utilities
become more expensive, I'm not afraid of the future,"
Radičová claims. She intends to place greater emphasis on
modern bio-products and agrotourism, thus adapting to a demand
that exists. "We are counting on taking advantage of
the SAPARD program (EU program for helping farmers with funding
for new projects) to build an operational facility, a warehouse,
and a distribution center for dried fruits. I know that the
EU offers farmers many different programs, and I'd need at
least one person to focus on this," she notes.
When the conversation turns to foreigners buying land, she
becomes combative. "I have to defend my pasturage. I
won't let one square meter go for recreational purposes!"
she declares. "But it's great to know that my children
will be able to study or live in any member country."
for the newcomer
Greece became the tenth member of the EC in 1981.
In this interview, we speak with his excellency Mr. Elefterios
Karagiannis, the Greek Ambassador in Prague, about how accession
to the EU changed the climate in his country.
What is the overall economic impact on Greece since
the EU membership? Has the situation improved?
Membership to the European Community has overall been beneficial
to the Greek economy. The positive amalgam of state measures
and EU funding for large-scale projects has allowed the Greek
economy to increase its growth rate (currently 3.8% per annum)
making it one of the most productive member states at the
current time. Further, the completion of the internal market
has allowed a substantial flow of foreign investments.
How has the standard of living for a typical Greek
In the last few years economic growth in Greece has been higher
than the EU average. This positive trend has substantially
increased the standard of life of the average Greek family,
bringing GDP per capita to roughly 17,000 EUR (2001 estimates).
We believe that this improvement would not have been possible
if Greece were not a member of the EU.
Do the Greeks feel they lost their national identity,
or are they proud to be part of the cosmopolitan European
Greeks were part of a big cosmopolitan world regardless of
the fact that they joined the EU. It is important to keep
in mind that the EU originally represented an economic, not
a social - cultural entity. The efforts that have been made
in the last decade to bring the Union's populations closer
are beneficial in that they allow for a multi-cultural exchange
that enhances education, tolerance and mutual respect. In
that sense, we believe that the EU, through its numerous grants
and funding programmes, has played a very positive part.
What professions were most affected by the EU membership,
either negatively or positively?
The flow of technologies and know-how, seminars, scholarships,
all under the EU, have benefited the secondary sectors of
the economy the most - i.e. industry and services. However,
professionals involved in the primary sector, agriculture,
still face difficulties due to the discrepancies of the CAP
(Common Agricultural Policy) which is not always able to combine
successfully all member states different interests.
Do you suffer from educated professionals migrating
to the richest member countries?
With the improvement of economic conditions in Greece, nationals
who have had successful professional careers abroad tend to
return to their homeland. The only noticeable outflow of highly
educated people is towards the EU institutions, currently
employing roughly 1,000 Greek nationals.
The Czech Republic will probably join the EU club
in May 2004. What are we likely to experience during the first
few months or years after our accession?
I believe the Czechs are more than ready for the accession.
Now there is time to get ready for a passage from theory to
reality, which means very pleasant benefits but also carries
a large number of responsibilities and obligations.
for poor wages
Martin Opočenský, a doctor of internal medicine at
the Thomayer faculty hospital, will vote in favor of EU accession
in the June referendum. His main expectation of our membership
is higher wages and an extension of cultural and social standards,
which he says are still lacking in the Czech Republic.
ONE OF THE founders of the Physicians' Union Club and an
officer of the Medical Chamber, Opočenský has access to information,
and is able to draw comparisons. Although he acknowledges
that the medical profession still enjoys a certain prestige
in Czech society, he can see the economically-oriented younger
generation ranks entrepreneurs and bankers more highly than
it does doctors, due in part to their above-average earnings.
When he went to work for the hospital in 1994 he was shocked
by his starting salary of CZK 3,200 before taxes. He currently
holds two certifications and his monthly pay ranges between
CZK 35,000 and 40,000 before taxes, including incentives and
on-duty pay. "Even so, it's a joke," he claims.
"In Germany, Czech doctors are offered EUR 6,000 a month
(about CZK 180,000), while here the average salary paid by
hospitals is around CZK 32,000."
Although his knowledge of English and French would make him
readily employable abroad, he has no plans to emigrate. He
wants to wait to see how the situation changes here. "We
have reports from the EU the wage structure for doctors must
be changed. According to their thinking, we should receive
about 40% of the usual EU salary, which is about twice our
current average salary," he explains. Opočenský doesn't
share the concerns of some citizens about migration, competition,
"Doctors are in such a qualified profession that they
need not fear the future. I believe that proper social standards
will finally take hold here, we won't be able to ignore the
law and its enforceability, and our judges will start working
more quickly," he says. "We are ready for accession,
and unless some political parties hold a boycott, we will
only profit from it."
The director, co-owner, and executive officer of
Isolit Bravo claims that EU accession will not bring any improvements
for entrepreneurs, and that small businesses will have to
struggle for survival. Nevertheless, he believes that accession
KVIDO ŠTĚPÁNEK manages Isolit Bravo, a firm that manufactures
thermoplastic parts and supplies companies that make household
and kitchen appliances. He was named Entrepreneur of the Year
2002 in a competition organized by Ernst & Young. Isolit
Bravo exports 70% of its production to western European countries,
and annual sales amount to around EUR 32 million. It has 480
employees, and its clients include Philips, IKEA, Honda, and
Štěpánek is a noncomformist in his firmly held views of our
accession. "I'm for it", he says. "True, I'm
terrified of the bureaucracy of the conglomeration, the generosity
of its social safety-net, and its leaders' populism, but were
we to remain on our own it would be even worse for us, which
is clear from our state budget deficit." As far as promising
prospects are concerned, he's skeptical. Isolit Bravo already
pays no duty on most of its goods, movement without visas
is permitted, and, moreover, the firm operates on what has
long been a common market. Štěpánek nonetheless strives to
increase work productivity, to launch new technologies and
products, and to improve his employees' language skills. He's
aware, however, that the closer ties brought by membership
will cause a more rapid narrowing of the wage gap. He says
that wages here will equal those in the EU within 10-15 years
after accession - so his firm can expect a struggle for survival.
"It won't be enough to just work hard, we will have to
add new, interesting, technically creative ideas," he
explains, adding that the economy could become service-oriented,
as we see in western Europe.
But Štěpánek is still not afraid. "Integration is inevitable,
there is no one who can stop it, not even a group of Czech
communists," he says, and adds his contention that integration
won't have a great impact on business. "Despite all the
minuses, I welcome our accession. How could war break out
in an integrated Europe? Even if nothing else positive comes
of it, that in itself is tremendous."
not, want not
profession: director of non-profit organization
It would be hard to separate the private life of
the young director of Arnika, a non-profit organization, from
her professional life. Although she sees many positive aspects
of EU accession, she fears that altered financial priorities
could threaten the existence of non-profit endeavors.
I'M IN FAVOR of joining the EU. It is the way to the future,"
asserts Lenka Mašková. In her opinion, not only are most European
environmental laws more refined than those in this country,
non-profit organizations are treated better there as well.
"Why restrict non-profit organizations that give voice
to the feelings of a certain group of people?" she asks.
One of Arnika's projects is the so-called NATURA 2000 European
system, which the Czech Republic will have to adopt into its
legislation after joining the EU. It will mean better protection
for valuable territories that have not yet been placed under
protection or are not national parks. Building anything that
could decrease the value of such lands would expose the Czech
Republic to heavy sanctions. "The state itself should
be interested in protecting such lands against investors,"
Mašková remarks. She hopes that entry into the union will
limit the incineration of waste, rather supporting recycling.
However, joining the EU will bring its share of uncertainty,
as well as greater controls over ecological issues. "All
of the lobbying will be moved to Brussels, and one has to
wonder if anything at all can be accomplished there,"
she admits. Financing will change, too. "Now most of
our money comes from foundations. This will change over time,
and we will be able to use structural funds," Mašková
notes. "About two years following our accession we will
be able to count on 10-20% from foundations, and we'll have
to get the rest from individuals and donors. The question
is whether or not this will lead to our demise," she
says. "Maybe after some time we'll be able to do away
with the myth that what is ecological isn't economical,"
profession: secretary of state for European Affairs
He says he's afire from the idea of an integrated
Europe. In the middle of January Jan Kohout took over what
had been called "Telička's office", rising from
deputy for security policy to first deputy minister of foreign
affairs and secretary of state for European affairs.
OUR PLANNED entry into the EU changed his life last year,
when he started representing the Czech Republic in the EU
Convention (an institution founded to create the EU constitution).
"I really love working with the Convention. It's fascinating
to be one of 105 people discussing the form of the future
constitution of the European Union," Kohout says. He
began his flirtation with the EU after ten years with the
UN. "Changes within the UN are tiny, so the EU suddenly
appeared to me as a greater challenge," he explains.
Kohout's agenda will differ substantially from Telička's.
Accession negotiations have been completed, so now we must
be prepared for "normal life in the union". Kohout's
responsibilities include preparing the public for the June
referendum on EU accession, as well as managing the agenda
associated with the EU Convention. "My ambition is for
others to listen to us, and to come up with clearly formulated
opinions, not just political and philosophical blathering
about what European integration means," he says.
Kohout sees specialized and linguistic training for the people
who will represent us in European structures as a vital and
somewhat neglected area. As for the intended campaign before
the referendum, he wants to avoid "brain-washing".
The advantages and disadvantages of accession must be explained
to the people. Kohout hopes for majority turn out for the
referendum, and that they will vote in favor of accession.
Joining the EU will give this country an opportunity to directly
influence goings-on in Europe, yet Kohout notes that EU membership
will involve a difficult struggle. "Fortunately, this
doesn't depend on how many weapons we have, but rather upon
the quality of our people," he concludes.