The Geopolitical Importance of the Accession Process for the EU - A Central European View

02.02.2000 12:45



02.02.2000 00:00


   Lecture given at ECPA (European Centre for Public Affairs) workshop in Brussels on February 2, 2000 for employees of Philip Morris


    I have been a Central Euroepan despite of having been described as an Eastern European by all the pundits during Cold War who believed that Prague lay to the east of Vienna. To be a CE of my age means to be a living witness not only to the Communist regimes of the after WW II times, but also to be confronted with still living memory of the times when political map of the area was very different from today. The Austro Hungarian Empire and Russian Empire encompassing much of today´s Poland may seem to be irrelevant to our times, but such conclusion would be extremely unrealistic. It is merely seven years ago that Czechoslovakia disintegrated and to any observer with even a modicum of historical knowledge it is clear that the disintegration was nothing else than last stage of the disintegration of the AH Empire. For us, CEs, disintegration processes are not an abstraction, they are not just a boring chapter from historical textbooks. They cannot be as they are the midwives -the Sisters Three-of the states we live in.

   Therefore as a CE I cannot speak about the European integration and the enlargement without mentioning:   

It has been already ten year since the Communist empire disintegrated and a long march of former so-called East-Block countries towards the EU and NATO started. Measured in important events it has been a very long time, indeed. Some countries already waded onto the NATO shores- a fact which for those of us who remember our lifes as a whole is equivalent to the experience of childhood reading about Mt.Everest and then reaching its summit in person. Perhaps more importantly, we (and Poland and Hungary and Slovak Republic) are no more called East Europeans but the Central Europeans. And, of course, the most important thing is that we bear the title „accession countries“.        

      It is no secret that our wish to become members of the EU is a big headache for all the EU. Even without the enlargement looming ahead the EU would have been facing many challenges today. Tom would undoubtedly be able to give you a long list of them off the cuff. There are thus many in the EU who view the long queue of countries in front of the EU gates with irritation and they bemoan the day when the EU publicly declared (Copenhagen Summit in 1993) that these countries could become members if they wished so. They regard the enlargement as unnecessary additional burden, as something that could and should have been avoided or at least postponed in order to have more time and energy for addressing their own domestic problems. Therefore I think it makes sense to remind ourselves what kind of worries the EU spared itself by summoning enough courage to invite us and others to the membership so soon after the downfall of the Empire.  


1.    Example (can-do) and natural aim (ready made agenda)

  The fundamental principle of Communist ideology was that it and nothing else was the only path to salvation for human societies. All societies or countries, which refused to follow this Sendera Luminosa, were bound with iron inevitability to end in ever deepening misery and mutual wars. So it was really an iron inevitability that the Communists viewed the reality, the progress and success of European integration with horror because it was direct and public refutation of the ideology by which they justified all their crimes and all the material sacrificies they required from the peoples they ruled. Therefore they did everything in their power to hide the EU success from their people. But to no avail. Thus in the eighties the public in the Communist countries knew the West discovered a recipe for peace and prosperity without accepting Communist serfdom.

     And this was a blessing for all Europe, indeed, because when the freshly liberated peoples started to formulate their political programs, the slogan “back to Europe” shot up to the top of their foreign policy agenda. The triumph of this self-evident aim prevented sundry nationalists and chauvinists from peddling their sinister wares with any hope of success. The sad exception of Yugoslavia only proves the point. 


2.    By attracting countries towards itself it achieved their rapprochement which would have never taken place

       So the first beneficial effect of the EU existence was that after the demons of Communism were exorcised away, the house was not left empty, rather it was quickly occupied by the spirits of integration. This may be called the first dividend of integration, which the EU received from us Central and Eastern Europeans. This dividend accrued thanks to mere existence of the EU. Now, for the second “dividend of integration” to come it was necessary for EU to do something – to make at least some noises to the effect that yes, you CEE Europeans, in case you would wish so you may, ehm, one day, become members of the EU. This promise not only guaranteed that the “Back to Europe “ perspective became something more real and tangible, but it transformed it into a part of internal political agenda of these countries. By embarking upon the road of step-by-step implementing acquis communautaire and developing ever-closer ties with the EU, the accession countries started their mutual rapprochement. And though all of them labour hard in this field primarily because of their own self-interest, they inadvertently come closer and closer to each other.

    To put it short: the EU existence and its declared willingness to enlarge itself made it a center of gravity in a continent whose central and eastern part had all of sudden been released from iron embrace of Communist empire and the attractive force has had immensely beneficial effect on the rest of Europe. At this point, lest we become complacent, we should pause and recognize the fact, which is almost never mentioned: that had EU been much younger and looser at the time of Soviet collapse, things might have worked other way round. The freshly liberated states of the CEE could have become a free for all fish-pond for the countries of the EU. The old powerplay of international politics, the old practice of forging special relationships with one group of countries in order to counterbalance other group or groups of states could have been resurrected in no time. For those who consider this premonition too farfetched I have one retort: “Look closer at what was going on inside the EU during early stages of the Yugoslavia´s disintegration.” I am convinced that the relapse of Europe to the patchwork of alliances and counteralliances was prevented only by sheer historical luck, namely, thanks to the fact that pro-integration momentum in the EU was then stronger than the ghosts of old times.

   Let me make here my last geostrategic observation before I turn to more detailed account of the enlargement process: The EU integration would have never taken place were it not for Soviet Empire. Although I am not an old sage I have had enough of experince and enough of unpleasant encounters with human folly to be sure that western nations would not have been able to forget their mutual wars and stop worshipping what they call national interests and sovereignty – which was a prerequisite for any integration – without there being the Soviet Tyranosaurus Rex roaring in the eastern horizon. His visibility was made even more prominent by the fact that he was standing on us central and eastern Europeans. And it was this Tyrannosaurus who forced the peoples of the free part of Europe to understand that there were only two options: Integrate or perish!

   Today, there is no visible Tyrannosaurus to prod the EU members to the enlargement. One does not hear anybody crying: enlarge or perish! And yet this would again be true description of the options that lie ahead. Therefore it is to be hoped that in the upcoming difficult decade or two of the enlargement of the EU by almost a dozen countries, there will be enough people with wisdom and insight on both sides to complete this unique process. 


II. Importance of the EU for one accessing country – The EU as a Benchmark for the Czech Republic.

     Now let me turn to description of how the accession is perceived in the Czech Republic. I do not feel entitled to describe situation in any other candidate country.

     First, there is no party or politician of stature who would oppose the membership as a goal – openly, that is. There are some, though, whose hearts are not in it and they make hints to that effect. I shall return to that later.

     Second, there is now a growing resentment in my country about the way most politicians behave and about corruption. A petition whose motto is “Thanks, and go away” directed to chairmen of two biggest parties was signed by 150 000 people. Crowds not seen from the revolution assembled in the Prague´s main square and demanded the same. The disenchantment of the population with prevailing conditions resulted in doubling the support for the unreconstructed Communist Party. This growth of support cannot be explained by worsening of economic situation only. Many people who despair of waking up enough people in next elections to bring about necessary changes now start to pin their hopes on the EU. They look forward toward days when outside institutions and outside forces will have power to clean the mess and teach the corrupt that rules are to be obeyed and not flaunted. I report this to you with mixed feelings. It is O.K. for me that the EU is becoming a benchmark. But as a Czech citizen I would prefer more optimism as to the capability of our own to improve conditions in my country without relying on the EU playing the role of Deus-ex-machina.


III. Practical Challenges

1.    Competition

    Although there are no tariff barriers and a very few nontariff barriers the full force of competition of EU companies has not yet arrived.

First the EU enterpreneurs are still reluctant to open their workshops there. In fact many stay away because they do not often know how favourable in fact conditions may be. The other day I learned about a full-automatized printing shop in the northern Bohemia which was built by a German enterpreneur. The reason for his decision had nothing to do with low wages of Czech workers because there are very few of them at the shop. The reason was that in Germany he could not keep it open twenty four hours a day seven days a week because of the trade unions whereas he met no such problem in my country. 

    Second, they cannot legally acquire property directly. This means that prices of immovables are much much lower than market values. Given the average appreciation of the real estate after various countries entry into EU, it is quite surprising to see so little activities in the westernmost part of the Czech Republic, because, you can, of course, de facto acquire the real estate through simple legal structure. The only explanation is that the idea of Czech Republic being in EU in foreseeable future is still a shocking idea to most of the business people in the Union.

 Third they cannot sue their Czech competitors for their failure to abide by this or that EU rule.

  Fourth a Czech capitalist does not need to worry that his employees will say good bye to him and go away to take employment in some EU country. The paultry number of work permits for Czech workers makes no dent in the number of available workforce.

  All this is going to change with the membership. But competition is bound to become stiffer even sooner. And there is still too little understanding of how the EU works among businessmen in general. Most of them even do not know that they do not know. 


2. Enormous legislative and administrative workload

    There is still a huge mountain of legislative work to be done and the same if not higher mountain of work to be done as regards the training of administrative and judicial personel to implement these new rules and adjudicate conflicts according to these rules. Furthermore, implementation of some of the EU acts poses a surprisingly complex legal problem. A directive may require changes in many laws or it may use terms wich have legal consequencies, but which are, however, unknown in the Czech legal idiom. The „acquis“ in the area of public procurement is a good example. There are additional problems to face. Strong and determined opposition of the previous government to delegating some powers to the regional bodies and similar hostility against adopting civil service code resulted in a great lack of skilled manpower in the public administration and little experience in the art of regional policy.


3. Weak traditions of public-private partnership and weak civil society structures

        In my country the prevailing opinion is that to prepare the country for the accession to EU is mostly government´s task. (This again as its roots in the AH era). This conviction may be understandable with a man in the street who has very little inkling as to the practical side of the process. Suprisingly however, this passive attitude has also been taken by business people. There seems to be little interest even to learn about what the accession would mean for their money making! This passivity in turn results in very little consideration for their interests in both government negociations with EU and in the implementation of „acquis communautaire“. I have been observing a last minute frantic lobbying for postponement of some legislation by firms which all too late realized that the pace of approximation adopted by the government in a particular area is too fast or too accommodating to some powerful lobby in the EU.


4.Temptation for politicians to play „the EU card“.

      One of the irrefutable proofs that the Czech Republic belongs to the western world is the existence and behaviour of that class of people which is called „the politicians“. This people are daily subjected to a temptation to make themselves more popular or more interesting by demagogic and cheap arguments which appeal to worse parts of the soul. And many of them succumb to this temptation occasionaly and some of them do so constantly. We should not judge these people too harshly. It is a sad truth that hard and detail-attending work which takes into account all the complexities of modern society hardly ever gets public acclaim and love of the crowds, while a slick mixture of pleasing platitudes, rosy promises and bows to popular prejudices makes good election returns. So it is no surprise that so-called Euroskepticism has its apprentices in my country. Attacking „bureaucrats in Brussels” who allegedly harbour zeal to regulate everything and everybody in sight is very popular with these politicians. Some of them even make hints about Czech national identity being in danger of dissolution in supranational entity run by left-wing elitists in cahoots with giant corporations. These politicians have generally very dim understanding of how the EU really works. But I am afraid that most of them would follow their line regardless of how many facts they would know. Their ignorance is not the ultimite cause of their attitudes – it only makes them feel more comfortable. The situation is made that much more difficult by the fact that the pro-integration politicians and publicists seldom posses more knowledge about the EU than the other side. A few months ago one economist who is known for his pro-integration views wrote a piece strongly attacking Euroskeptical attitudes. But in the same stride he felt obliged to deliver a swipe against “bureaucrats in Brussels who foist upon people such ridicuous things like the banana regulation proscribing bananas shorter and thinner than certain limits”. It seems he did not do his homework before writing such foolish assertion that betrayed him as having no inkling about how this and many other particular regulations are arrived at in the EU. Then there are politicians who use the EU as a club against anybody opposing their pet and unpopular proposals - like tax hike or a convoluted press law. Well, that is not exactly the way to make the Union popular.

    What is needed in my country is a politician who would be a Mr. Europe - a politician or she-politician who would be going around explaining what the EU is and why it is in the Czech national interest to join it. His task would be not only to disseminate information about the EU, but also to wake up business community so that it starts to learn European game and finally, to arouse the general public. We still do not have one. And, alas, we cannot import him. He must be Made in the Czech Republic.


         IV. Conclusion

         I am very keen to learn about how things look inside other CE candidate countries that face the huge task of fulfilling all requirements of the accession to the EU. From what I have gathered I think there are differences in certain respects but not in substance from what one can see in the Czech Republic.

      I want to express my sincere hopes that it will not be only the EU which will summon enough energy to overcome all the hurdles laying ahead, but that also the CE candidate countries will rise to the unique historical occasion when that part of Europe which was especially struck by disintegration and mutual alienation has now a window of opportunity to leave all that behind.      






© 2009 Pavel Bratinka Všechna práva vyhrazena.