Young EU members celebrate decade in rich club

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Associated Press

Posted on May 1, 2014 at 2:05 PM

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — It has been a time of monumental change for several former Soviet satellite states that joined the European Union 10 years ago: open markets and the free movement of people has spurred economic growth that at times dwarfed worldwide trends. The goods they produced reached millions of new consumers. But it also left some feeling they threw away the yoke of an overbearing Moscow for 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 were either one-time Soviet republics or once part of the Warsaw Pact: the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. The others were Malta, Cyprus and Slovenia.

In countries like Poland, a decade in one of the world's most exclusive clubs has brought galloping growth, even at time when many other parts of the union 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 earlier this week 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 greater access for Poles 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, reaching 115 billion euros (about $160 billion) last year.

Membership in the bloc and a move westward has also offered an enhanced sense of security for some of the countries in recent weeks, as newly assertive Russia has flexed its muscles in Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.

"For me, it is good that we are in the union," said Leonard Kukiel, an elevator engineer who works in Warsaw for U.S.-based Otis Elevator Co. — a job he said likely wouldn't 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."

As for the neighboring Czech Republic, David Marek, chief economist at Patria Finance investment bank in Prague, said EU membership had "an essential effect" on economic development, with exports rising some 130 percent since 2004 and huge foreign-investment inflows — 250 billion koruna ($12.5 billion) in 2005 alone.

Former Czech President Vaclav Klaus, however, has compared the 28-member European bloc to a Soviet-style dictatorship. He has criticized bloc rules that have given small countries like his little power compared to larger members like Germany, France and Poland, which is about as big as all the other entrants combined.

Hungary 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 Zsofia Vermes, a 41-year-old science teacher, is among those Hungarians who believe that EU funds have gone to the wrong things.

"I see parks and football stadiums being unveiled daily instead of more investments in education and the health sector," Vermes said. "I think priorities are getting mixed up and the important things are being relegated in favor of flashy projects."

Hungary's economic growth since 2004 was just 9 percent, 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 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.

So far, it is mostly the far right and far left that have expressed a desire to leave the EU most vocally. 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.

"We had a life before joining the EU," said Workers' Party President Gyula Thurmer, proposing closer ties with Russia, China and Latin America to boost Hungary's exports. "In sum, these 10 years have been negative. Hungary joined an organization of richer countries and it was an illusion to believe that they would come here and change our lives."

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Associated Press writers Karel Janicek in Prague, Czech Republic and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest, Hungary, contributed to this report.

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