One Year On - Prague conference looks at the impact of EU enlargement

EU commissioner Vladimir Spidla and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, photo: CTK

This time last year, the Czech Republic joined the EU amid much fanfare. But now that the country has been an EU member for over a year, what effect has it actually had? One Year On, a conference held by Czech Europhiles in Prague on Wednesday set about tackling this very question.

EU commissioner Vladimir Spidla and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
The conference included participants such as Czech EU commissioner Vladimir Spidla and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda.

This event was a timely one. Although most Czechs are still generally supportive of the European Union, there are many who would tell you that not a lot has actually changed since they joined a year ago.

It's not a view shared Monika MacDonagh-Pajerova, Chairperson of the pro-European organisation ANO pro Evropu, which was one of the conference organisers:

"I think there has been a lot of impact, not just in the economic area where we expected it such as rising standards of living, investment from foreign investors, etc., but especially in the political area. I think we can already see some influence from the civilised European political environment. Also what I appreciate very much myself is the fact that for the first time in Czech history we are sitting at the same table as equal partners and we can play our part in making decisions about the future of Europe."

Tomas Klvana of the Czech Euro-Atlantic Council, who chaired one of the discussions at the conference, is also guardedly optimistic about how things have panned out since the EU expanded last year:

"The most important thing has been the creation of a new political-cultural space, which has been enlarged and will help the Czechs to see things, not just from their own Czech, Central-European perspective, but from a pan-European perspective. And that will help, especially with the younger generation, which is now able to travel and willing to educate itself abroad. It will slowly, but surely change the entire culture, but you can't really expect these changes to be perceived and felt after only one year."

In a speech she gave at the start of the conference, Monika MacDonagh-Pajerova stressed the need for Czech politicians to respect the pro-European leanings of the electorate, which could be crucial in ensuring that the controversial EU constitution is adopted in the coming months.

EU commissioner Vladimir Spidla and Monika MacDonagh-Pajerova,  photo: CTK
It's an issue that carries particular resonance at the moment considering that President Vaclav Klaus is a loud Euro-sceptic voice on the Czech political scene, despite the fact that polls suggest that most Czechs are still pro-European after voting overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership in 2003.

So what does Ms MacDonagh-Pajerova think of her president's strong Euro-sceptic views?

"For me as a Czech citizen, I sometimes feel really ashamed and I think to myself that he is not speaking for me. I think a politician - somebody who is paid from our taxes - should respect the opinion of the people, as expressed in the first historic free referendum here, even if he doesn't like it. And if he doesn't respect it, then I don't really see the logic in [this attitude]. Even as president, he is not the person who should create the foreign policy. The foreign policy is created by the government, and the government with all its mistakes is a very active, pro-European government."