Reflecting on two years of EU membership

On May 1st, the Czech Republic celebrated its second anniversary as a European Union member state. While the official anniversary passed nearly unnoticed, on May 8th, a holiday marking the end of World War Two, politicians, intellectuals and businesspeople gathered to discuss the Czech Republic and its future in Europe. Guests included the former head of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, the former Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Catherine Lalumiere, and many figures from Czech circles. The forum was one where diverse issues to be raised, and there was room for serious reflection on Czech membership in the EU.

Representing big business in the Czech Republic, the Executive Director of Ceska Sporitelna, Jack Stack, told me about how doing business in the Czech Republic has changed since the country joined the European Union:

"On the positive side, clearly from an economic point of view, our small and medium-sized enterprises can export much more easily, and there is not as much bureaucracy at the border. So that's been a big positive, and this has led to better employment opportunities and growth in GNP. The other positive I've seen has been more cultural, in the sense that our bank employees at Ceska Sporitelna feel part of the European Union, they are travelling more frequently, and are starting to identify not only as Czechs, but as Europeans."

For another perspective, I spoke to Vojtech Cepl, a justice of the Czech constitutional court and well-known critic of the Czech judicial system, who shared his thoughts on the importance of the EU to the Czech Republic today:

"We were trying to join western structures—what is now called Atlantic culture—for 1000 years, and at last we are in, so I am very happy and I think that's the main contribution, because we have to adjust our system to the western one. I think that the western system is superior to, for example, the Soviet system which is based on false ideology—it is simply wrong and utopian."

What about this concept that Czechs tend to respect European Union institutions and structures more than they respect their own? Why is it that the Czech Republic does not seem to have taken much initiative in creating its own institutions that deem respect from the populace—why must we be influenced from the outside, whether that be from the east or the west?

"That's simple. Our system of rules of human conduct, that is the normative system of rules which includes ethics, law, and esthetical rules is backward, fossil, and when we join a group which is superior, we are improving our position. For example, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg doesn't allow our courts to ignore human rights. A kind of osmosis is needed, opening the country and its tradition, the system of education—it will be a long process to change the minds of people, and I consider this the most important part of culture, what people have in their minds and hearts. Economic systems and political institutions can be changed relatively quickly, but law and morality, that's a long-run marathon."

While politicians tossed around opinions on whether a federalized Europe is positive or not, Ondrej Liska of the Green Party gave his evaluation of the situation regarding the Czech Republic's use of EU Structural Funds:

"The state of use of Structural Funds in the past years is something we see rather critically. It's a very unique chance to invest in the future and quality of life in the Czech Republic and its regions. We are standing on the threshold of the next period, 2007 - 2013, and by using the Structural Funds and we should be able to use 93 billion crowns per year for investment in infrastructure, ecological projects, roads, railroads, social projects. However, we have huge problems absorbing these funds as we do not have enough quality projects, or people who understand how to use and distribute this money. We see this as a huge problem. We propose to tackle three main problems: one is the bureaucratic burden. We have to be able to make it much easier to deliver the funds to the people who really need them. This distribution system we have now is rather complicated, and there are many ministries that distribute the money. If I am an NGO, or the mayor of a small community, I will have a problem filling out 80 - 150 pages of documentation to be able to approach the funds. Secondly, the user fund is not very transparent and you can hardly track-down where the money goes. So we want to create one agency that would be transparent, accessible to the public, and take away the titles from the ministries."

You are a young, educated person who has decided to enter politics. We have just celebrated the two-year anniversary of the Czech Republic joining the EU. How do you view the overall situation of this country's membership in EU structures?

So two years in, opinion polls reflect the fact that most Czechs view EU membership as a positive move, and now they're looking to the future and focussing on ways to enhance business relationships and further improve this country's infrastructure.