EUROPEAN UNION: Losing Its Shine

  • Analysis by Pavol Stracansky (bratislava)
  • Friday, May 29, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

But five years later, despite surveys and official figures showing that wages, standards of living and economic performance have all improved in that time, analysts are warning of a growing antipathy towards the EU as the region is battered by the economic crisis.

'Trust in European institutions has fallen. There is an anti-EU sentiment among some people in those countries hit hardest by the economic crisis who believe that in some way European institutions have failed to protect them,' Peter Kerko of the Budapest think-tank Political Capital told IPS.

In May 2004 the eight former communist states - Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Slovenia - which joined the EU were all enjoying an economic boom to various extents.

Foreign investment was healthy, economies were expanding rapidly, local property markets were booming, unemployment in most of those countries was falling, even if slowly, and domestic financial sectors were providing easy credit to citizens.

Huge funds were also available from the EU for development, and governments pointed to the opportunities for businesses and individuals that joining the trading bloc would now bring.

But five years later the situation is vastly different.

Across Eastern Europe countries are facing severe contractions in their economies, with some, like Latvia, predicted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to see shrinkage of up to 12 percent this year.

Unemployment, after years of falling steadily in some countries, is beginning to rise. In Slovakia the latest available official figures show that the jobless rate is 10 percent - rising for the first time since mid-2006. In the Czech Republic it has now reached 12 percent, and in Hungary, traditionally seen as one of the strongest economies in the region, it is 9.7 percent, up almost two percent from a year ago.

Meanwhile pensioners and the unemployed who are reliant on state benefits for their income complain bitterly that prices have soared since the country joined the EU.

Even though pensions and state benefits are in most cases index-linked to inflation and minimum wages, many of those receiving them say they do not cover even basic groceries, let alone charges for gas, electricity, heating and water.

The average monthly pension in Slovakia, for instance, is 335 euros. But surveys by local media this month have shown that the prices of many goods and services, including food, are similar or in many cases higher, than those in neighbouring Austria, one of the world's top ten richest nations.

Martina Kovacova, 66, a pensioner from Trnava in western Slovakia told IPS: 'Pensions do not stretch far enough for anyone. I have relatives in Poland on one side of my family and in Hungary on the other who say the same thing. None of us can get by without help from our families. Before we joined the EU we had enough money in our pockets. Now we have almost none.'

Jobseekers say they have suffered as the ideal of unhindered labour mobility for Eastern Europeans across the EU has turned sour; jobs abroad are disappearing as economies in the west slump.

Others are bitter over new economic regulations that followed EU membership.

In Poland shipyard workers from major cities on the Baltic coast such as Gdynia, Szczecin and Gdansk are furious over orders from Brussels that state aid to their yards must be paid back - effectively putting thousands out of work - as it breaks EU competition laws.

But policy experts say the economic hardship in many East European states today is not related directly to the EU.

'None of these problems are related to membership of the EU in these states,' Piotr Kaczynski of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies told IPS. 'In countries suffering hardest from the economic crisis people are disillusioned with their own governments, not in reality with the EU.

'In these countries someone blaming the EU for this (economic hardship) is, if asked, likely to blame any institution, local or otherwise. They will just say 'it's this organisation's fault, or that body's fault'.'

Other analysts believe that some embittered locals, who have even rioted in countries like Latvia and Lithuania in open protest over their governments' handling of the economic crisis, are hardening their stance towards the Union whether it is justified or not.

'The unemployment rate is rising, firms are laying more and more staff off, and people are becoming critical and pessimistic,' Olga Gyarsasova from the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) think-tank in Bratislava told IPS.

'Perception of the EU is very clearly related to perception of domestic internal problems. If the domestic situation is bad it can cast the EU in a bad light for people. The majority of people here see the EU as a good thing. But there are certainly those who do not.'

The depth of this antipathy has been shown in falling EU approval ratings in some of the new member states.

'Here in Hungary the numbers of people who support the EU is still over 50 percent, but that has fallen dramatically from 70 percent in 2006 as the support for the government has fallen,' Peter Kerko of Political Capital told IPS, adding that 'there are countries in the region, in the Baltic states for instance, where the EU is far, far less popular.'

Experts warn that the popularity of the EU is unlikely to rise any time soon, as social and economic conditions worsen.

Some political experts say the bigger question now is not what will happen to levels of trust in the EU in the new member states, but whether people will remain interested in the EU at all.

Political Capital's Peter Kerko said: 'Part of the problem with the present lack of trust in European institutions is that there is not enough knowledge of them, including the EU, and they are too far removed from people.

'The European Parliament elections are next month and turnout has been dropping historically for decades since the first elections. It will not be any different this time.

'Interest is falling in the EU across not just Eastern Europe but the entire Union. It is just too remote an organisation for some people.'

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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