Hungary's plusses and minuses after ten years as EU member

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Ten years ago when Hungary celebrated joining the European Union, many people saw it as a fountain of good luck.

Yes, membership offered great gains, but experts say that if Hungarians had known how to make better use of the opportunities they would have enjoyed more economic growth over the years since then.

Today, a conservative government attributes difficulties to earlier politicians.

When we asked current Foreign Minister János Martonyi about this, he suggested the errors of socialist governments were to blame: “If we compare the results over the last 10 years with the other Central-European countries, then our performance doesn’t seem the best at all, but we have to see that the failures of the first six years cannot be easily corrected within a few years.”

EU enlargement was an important turning point for Hungarian companies. Although some felt intimidated by opening up to competition and by having to conform to strict pan-EU regulations and standards, at the same time there was an enthusiasm for the access to new markets. On the other hand, a mineral water company benefited when it found EU rules less strict than Hungarian ones.

Szentkirályi Mineral Water CEO Levente Balogh said: “We started to think positive. We realised that open borders meant in both directions, so that we’d enjoy the same expansion and acquisition opportunities as foreign companies.”

Being an EU member state has meant enjoying the benefit of communal development funding as well. This continues today, for instance the city of Gödöllő, northeast of Budapest, is building a new sewage facility. But EU money was also put towards freshening up the splendid royal residence, so loved by Sissi, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary. As EU presiding nation in 2011, the government hosted key meetings here.

György Gémesi, the mayor of Gödöllő, said: “Everybody thought Hungary would get a big bag of money that we could immediately spend for this or that, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s a process we have had to learn.”

Some don’t like the strings attached. Criticism of EU integration from the far right Jobbik party has been fairly constant. Hungary has its share of eurosceptics, like any other country. The debt crisis turned up the volume.

Criticism should be listened to if it’s constructive, according to Péter Balázs, a Hungarian former European Commissioner:
“The critics should be heard, and problems solved. But if someone totally rejects European cooperative theory, we have nothing to talk about.”

According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, the proportion of Hungarians who strongly approve of the EU — it’s not high, it’s 35 percent — but it’s higher than the overall average in the EU, which is 31 percent.

Correspondent Andrea Hajagos said: “Opinion about Hungarian membership in the EU took a beating during the crisis. But today it seems to be better. The EU is getting a more positive image in Hungarian minds.”

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