10. 10. 2003
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ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
10. 10. 2003

Olomouc debate on the European Union: The Czech fears are groundless

On Wednesday 1 October I took part in a panel debate on the Czech Republic and the European Union as part of a film festival attached to the Palacky University in Olomouc. I was the only foreign participant, facing a packed Freskovy sal, joining with Jan Zahradil, Jan Frait and Daniel Kroupa, with Ondrej Hejma as moderator, a job he performed extremely well.

The differences between us seemed obvious.

Kroupa, as senator, former dissident and proud to label himself a `liberal conservative', was attracted to the `idea' of Europe and favoured an ultimate objective of a federation. Frait, as a member of the CNB board, dealt with economic issues and saw the EU as bringing beneficial participation in an international economy. Zahradil was concerned with practical issues of the EU we see before us. He did vote in favour in the referendum, but with a heavy heart and little conviction. Indeed, he actually had little to say on the advantages of membership and seemed to be preparing for an opposition role once the Czech Republic has joined. I was generally in favour and thought I gave a number of clear reasons as to why it would be to the Czech Republic's advantage.

It gradually became clear to me that there was a more general area of difference between me and the other participants, including most of the audience. Throughout the discussion there was an underlying assumption that joining the EU would amount to a really fundamental change. I didn't see that. When I look at changes that have taken place since the UK joined the then European Community, now about 30 years ago, most have completely different causes. We are now a much more diverse society, more multi-cultural, more multi-ethnic, more religions, more travelling, more variety of goods available, more foreign firms present, including many from the far East and North America with no obvious preference to Europe. We do travel to European countries, but we also travel further and welcome visitors from around the globe. I had to hurry back after the debate to teach a group of students who were predominantly from China, with also some from India and the Middle East, but only a few from France, Spain, Holland and Germany.

It makes it very difficult to understand the kinds of fears expressed, for example, by Klaus, that we could all be forced into jednotny evropsky `eintopf' and even forced to drink the same kind of beer. The last few decades have seen a huge increase in choice and variety of goods, including very definitely the beer in pubs where the wide range of Czech products now available have come to look rather ordinary. Any suggestion that that could be reversed by the EU -- or indeed that anybody there would want to - seems so distant from reality that it is almost impossible to make any comment at all. I tried, but fear it was rather incoherent.

The benefits of the Czech Republic joining the EU seem to me clear. There will be a contribution from various support programmes equivalent to about 1% of GDP. If the money is well spent, and that will not be the case in the first few years, it can lead to substantial further growth. There will also be continuation of inward investment which has been attracted by the prospect of participation in the large European market. That will not mark a sudden break. It is a continuation of a trend that has been under way for some years. There was no real disagreement on this, although Frait seemed to me to exaggerate the degree to which the act of joining will mark a break in economic trends and Zahradil seemed less forward in specifying benefits.

None of us were enthusiastic about early accession to the euro. There would be advantages, with no need to change money, a stable exchange rate and easier comparisons of prices across frontiers. The immediate problem is that membership requires tough conditions on the budget and the Czech Republic's deficit is currently too high for the criteria set. The need to join the euro might help the government to insist on putting this right, against opposition from some of its own supporters. Otherwise, we were agreed that there was no need to hurry.

Kroupa was the most enthusiastic about general philosophical issues and the `idea' of a united Europe. He saw the desire to end all wars in Europe as a key stimulus to European integration and hoped ultimately for a federation. He wanted an EU that could have an effective foreign policy, something that seems a very long way away. Zahradil had no time for this and preferred to discuss the merits of the EU on the basis of the organisation that exists.

I had some sympathy for Zahradil's position, but this is not a simple issue. The `idea' is important and can influence general political thinking in a country. It also is difficult to see why else countries from east-central Europe would be welcomed. The economic benefits for richer countries in western Europe must be minimal. Those countries that benefited in the past from support programmes can expect to lose out.

At the same time, the reality of the EU is of a cumbersome, bureaucratic organisation that has great difficulty reaching any decisions. Those that do emerge are a result of compromises and deals between competing interests, with real or effective vetoes making substantial changes extremely difficult.

This took us into a discussion of the EU's proposed constitution. It has not been a major issue of concern in the UK and still less to me. It seems to combine a certain amount of phraseology, reflecting the `big idea', with proposals for practical changes. When Ondrej Hejma asked all of us to say what we would like included I was rather at a loss.

I do not like general philosophical statements that can provoke endless debate and disagreement. I do not welcome, for example, references to religion, when we are so diverse in our religious beliefs, including a large number who have none.

I would like some changes in how the EU operates, but I am not sure if any constitutional change -- at least that member states would accept - could make them possible. I would like something that could finally and seriously reform the agricultural policy. I would like a change in trade policy so that we keep to past promises to abolish the excessive agricultural subsidies that are harmful to developing countries. I might even question why the UK still receives `compensation' from the other countries for apparently contributing more to the EU budget than was received. Yes, even new members, such as the Czech Republic, have agreed to join in paying this.

The thought of every member having its own commissioner seems to me absurd. That seems to reflect a search for prestige, or a fear of being somehow undervalued, rather than a serious view on how the body should function. More members, more commissioners, it all means more complexity and slower decisions, if any can be taken at all. At least Kroupa seemed to see merit in this argument.

Nevertheless, I generally seemed to be taking a different view from everyone else. I see little in the way of dramatic changes coming from this constitution. Zahradil was worried that it was `collectivist' and contained elements that should frighten any entrepreneur. Kroupa pointed to many phrases that showed strong support for enterprise which he thought the western European left would not have tolerated ten years ago. On questioning, Zahradil centred his objections more on the `vagueness' of the document, but the fears seemed artificial. It looked like that preparation for a role as eurosceptic opposition once in the EU.

On returning home I saw again how far we differed. Headlines in Hospodarske noviny have several times reported negotiations over the EU constitution. One even ran `Shoda o Ustave EU? Zatim daleko'. Failure to reach agreement in the EU is not normally considered worth reporting by our media.

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