Fantasy of the European Union for the middle European Countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary)
On May 1, 2004, following many years of economic and structural reforms, the four countries making up Central Europe - Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - joined the European Union as full members. Despite similar efforts made by these four countries, there are significant differences among their political, economic and social situations. Although their accession to the European Union has been synonymous with some medium-term growth which may translate into long-term development, these four countries have drastically different internal situations and encounter different problems now, over 3 years from their accession. In fact, in all four cases, the pre-accession vision of the European Union and its benefits has not yet been confirmed. In this sense, the four Central European countries are the best example of what EU accession implies and how important internal conditions are when it comes to long-term development of a country. Thesis: This paper evaluates the effects of post-accession in the four countries, and ultimately strives to determine whether the expected benefits of EU accession have been a reality or a myth in the case of these four Central European states.
Political, economic and social conditions after May 1, 2004. When looking at the political map of these four new EU members, one cannot help but notice that in Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland the common coordinate is political instability. Also, the main threats to the democratic stability of this region are the rise of populism and extreme nationalism. In fact, in Slovakia the governmental alliance of leftwing populists and extremist nationalists, as well as the leadership by rightwing populists in Poland are the best examples of this threat. Political turmoil has not avoided Hungary where the main opposition party organized protests for the resignation of the government upon the latter's confirmation through a confidence vote by the Parliament. The Czech situation is at the opposite extreme as the minority government has not gained a vote of confidence (Rupnik: 2007).
Political instability has manifested itself in a similar manner in all four countries and has resulted in low levels of popular trust in democratic institutions as shown in a recent poll conducted by Gallup International in Eastern and Central Europe (Gallup International, Voice of the People 2005: Trends in democracy: 2005). The results of this poll are quite worrisome as a great percentage of the respondents manifested very little or no trust in the democratic process, more precisely they did not consider their elections free and fair. Also, they did not consider that their voice mattered in the electoral process. These results could account for the loss of supporters of democracy and for the rise of populist movements.
The research undertaken by the Central European Opinion Research Group in the four countries regarding citizens' level of trust in social and political institutions - political parties, police, army, members of parliament, prime minister, president, media, private companies, trade unions, and religious institutions - but also, the level of trust in fellow citizens, revealed that there are numerous variations among the four Central European countries. Despite these variations, the overall percentages illustrate that political institutions in general were negatively perceived in all countries. Also, trade unions and private companies received very low levels of trust due to the communist past of these countries. For instance, in Poland and Slovakia, 60% of the total number of respondents views the latter two institutions with distrust closely followed by Hungary with 59% of the respondents not trusting trade unions and private companies. As far as Czechs, only 40% answered negatively which could be explained by the steady growth of the GDP in the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution. The institutions that are positively perceived in all four countries are the media (percentages ranging from 72% in Slovakia to 51% in Hungary) and the army. Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey is represented by the differences across the four countries regarding the level of trust in the Police in the sense that in Hungary and Poland more than 60% expressed their trust in this institution (and less than 30%, their distrust), whereas in Slovakia and the Czech Republic the situation was more than reversed with a negative difference between levels of trust and distrust (data from CEORG research Personal Trust in Different Categories of Social Institutions: September 2004).
An overview of the economic situation in the four countries reveals that although compared to other European regions, performance for Central European countries has not been stellar, there has been a general positive trend. Political problems that the four Central European countries have faced are ironically or not, contrasted with a relatively good economic performance especially after the year 2000. In the period between 2000 and 2005, the Gross Domestic Product of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic grew on average by 4% a year. Nonetheless, these countries need to do much better in the near future to be able to converge with their much wealthier Western European neighbors. In fact, permanent comparisons with their much more advanced neighbors breeds a sense of backwardness and an economic complex which is very much felt at the level of the population (Aslund: 2006). Unemployment remains a big problem in Central European countries, especially in Poland where it reaches 15%. Also, budget deficits are still high; the most affected of the four is Hungary, with a total deficit of about 10% of GDP. As far as reforms, although all four countries have come a long way, the only one which has truly benefited from a strong and coherent reform program has been Slovakia. This can also be explained by the general attitude of new European Union members who tend to rely on EU subsidies maintaining large budget deficits and undertaking few reforms (Ibid.).
The results of the research regarding the citizens' level of satisfaction with the functioning of economy in the four countries were not surprising at all. The research was made up of four questions related to an evaluation of the national economy, a prediction for the following year, the material living conditions of the respondent's household and the predictions for the latter's situation in the following year. The general trend of the answers was clearly negative with an average of around 50% of respondents viewing the economic situation of their country as bad or very bad - ranging from around 40% in Hungary and over 70% in Slovakia. As far as their predictions regarding the improvement of the economy, most respondents were reserved and answered they did not expect dramatic changes over the following year. Regarding living standard, most respondents, i.e. around 50% in the case of all four countries, answered their living conditions were neither good nor bad (data from CEORG research Level of Satisfaction regarding Economic Situation: July-September 2004).
Another research conducted by the Central European Opinion Research Group - CEORG regarding the degree of satisfaction of the population concerning health care in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland shows that popular perception of the health care system differs greatly among the four countries. The degrees of satisfaction of the respondents varied significantly from one country to another. While Czech citizens expressed the highest degree of satisfaction in their national health care system, Poles and Slovaks answered they were strongly displeased with the health care system in their countries. As far as Hungary, the largest group of respondents was neither satisfied nor dissatisfied (38, 4%). In fact, the Czech Republic is the only country where the number of respondents who are satisfied with the health care system outweighs those who are dissatisfied whereas in Slovakia - similarly to Poland - more than half of the respondents answered they were…