The EU and you

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,” he insists.
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 us.”
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.


Photo: V&V

Driven to compete

Vladimír Starosta
age: 36
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 all.”
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 and drivers.

A suburban view

Photo: V&V

Jana Radičová
age: 37
profession: farmer

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.”

Advice for the newcomer

Photo: V&V

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 family changed?
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 world?
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.

A cure for poor wages

Photo: V&V

Martin Opočenský
age: 35
profession: physician

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, or inflation.
“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.”

Will business boom?

Photo: Vladimír Weiss

Kvido Štěpánek
age: 45
profession: entrepreneur

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 is inevitable.

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 BMW.
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.”

Waste not, want not

Photo: V&V

Lenka Mašková
age: 24
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,” suggests Mašková.

Making himself heard

Photo: V&V

Jan Kohout
age: 42
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.

Back to top