Czech premier Mirek Topolánek leads call for EU core values

José Manuel Barroso, Mirek Topolánek (right), photo: CTK

Three of the European Union’s top leaders made heartfelt calls in Prague today for the world’s biggest economic and trading power not to turn its back on its basic values under pressure from the world financial crisis. Czech Premier, Mirek Topolánek, EU President, José Manuel Barroso, and the EU’s Economic Commissioner, Joaquin Almunia, were in the Czech capital for a conference to discuss the success and lessons learnt from the EU’s biggest ever enlargement five years ago.

José Manuel Barroso,  Mirek Topolánek  (right),  photo: CTK
In May 2004, the Czech Republic and nine other, mostly ex-Communist, countries joined the existing 15-member EU in a so called ‘big bang’. They were followed by Romania and Bulgaria.

Mirek Topolánek, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said the courageous decision to enlarge had been positive for both old members and new. He described the significance of EU entry as above all a confirmation that the Czech Republic had turned its back on the Communist and Iron Curtain era.

“In reality, we never stopped being part of Europe, although we lost our freedom for 40 years. European integration rather than a return to Europe was a confirmation of our return to freedom. That slogan, return to freedom described a lot better what entry into Europe meant for us.”

Fears in some quarters of old Europe then was that they would pay a high price for taking in the new members and be swamped by cheap labour. They failed to materialise.

But the EU’s future is now overshadowed by threats that countries will take their own protectionist paths to solve current economic woes. In doing so they could trample on EU rules, discard solidarity and close the doors on new members. These fears were only partly dispelled by a special EU crisis summit on Sunday.

As the EU tries to overcome its internal problems and the attention of individual countries turns towards tackling the crisis, Mr Topolánek made a heartfelt plea for the EU not to refuse new members even though they might need more time to qualify.

“Other countries further East will undoubtedly need more time to fulfill these tests. But there is no reason to refuse them just on the grounds that are still rather poor, or are historically and culturally different.”

Several states formed from the break up of former Yugoslavia are lined up waiting to join the EU as is Turkey, whose possible membership is a major issue of disagreement between EU states.

Photo: CTK
Mirek Topolánek closed his 20-minute speech with a rallying call for the EU to fight protectionism at home and abroad and not to discard its basic values during these difficult times. A united EU based on its functioning internal market was the best tool for tackling the financial crisis and nothing could be worse than putting obstacles in its way, he said.

“We are building Europe, not old and new; not large and small, not those with the euro and those without; not North and South, not West and East. We are building a Europe of equal opportunities and shared values, a Europe which is open, flexible, and which shows solidarity and responsibility.”

Commissioner for economic and montetary affairs, Almunia, said enlargement had paid off for the new members by giving them growth of an average 5.5 percent over the past five years. They had also helped companies in ‘old’ Europe by providing new markets and the impetus to better compete worldwide.

Mr. Barroso’s speech began with a series of ‘thank yous’ to the new member states for what they had contributed over the last years. He ended with the conclusion that the five year old enlargement meant Europe really had become European.