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Hungarians Have Mixed Feelings About Joining EU - 2004-05-01

Hungarians joined the European Union Saturday amid fears of higher prices and expected difficulties for the country's cherished, but ailing agricultural sector. Hungarians have mixed feelings about joining the EU.

In a Budapest park, there are no signs Hungary will join the European Union.

An old radio plays a song of the International Socialist Workers Movement, as spring sunshine brightens statues of leaders who have long been buried, along with their Communist policies.

Statues of Lenin and other Soviet-era leaders were removed from the city center, after the collapse of communism 15 years ago. Now, they make up what is known locally as the Statue Park on the outskirts of Budapest.

Just outside the park, a souvenir stand sells 'McLenin' tee-shirts and cans said to contain the last breath of communism. It is part history, part parody.

But the 62-year-old ticket saleswoman, who lived through communism and is afraid to give her name, says she sees many elderly visitors these days, who do not welcome the new breeze coming from Brussels.

She says elderly people do not believe that EU membership will mean prosperity for this small nation of 10-million people, and they miss what they remember as the economic security of the communist past.

"I am a pensioner already, and I just work on site here. But I think it [EU membership] will be difficult, especially at the beginning. But, maybe, for young people it will be good. Now, we are going through very difficult times," she said.

She is not the only Euro-skeptic in Hungary. Take Gyongyi Nagy Laszlone, 47, who lives opposite the Statue Park. The windows of her home overlook the smiles of the muscular bronze Communist heroes.

Ms. Nagy Laszlone, who works as a hairdresser, says shopping for her family is becoming more expensive.

She believes EU membership will in general lead to even higher prices, and she makes clear that positive speeches from politicians seem far removed from the daily reality of her family.

"I am not very happy, because there is a lot of talk about price rises," she said. "And, I think, it will be only better after some time. We already know that it will become more expensive to maintain apartments, which means that the prices will go up for electricity, water, gas and other things. Then, we know that the prices for fruit will go up, for instance, for exotic fruits, and for meat, such as pork, and for sugar."

A recent study shows that many Hungarians like her suffer under the daily burden of what is still a 'transitional,' or post-communist, economy. About three-million people, or nearly one-third of the country, are reported to be poor.

The poverty situation is expected to get worse initially, after Hungary joins the EU, and social workers fear a growing gap between the incomes of the rich and the poor.

Hungarian farmers are also concerned that they will lose their livelihood, due to competition from their new western partners and their multi-national corporations.

Still, many Hungarians welcome membership in the European Union. Indeed, although turnout was low, nearly 84 percent of voters approved it in a referendum last year.

Jozsef Vidai, who worked most of his life as a technical engineer, shares the short-term skepticism, but he says EU membership will improve the lives of future generations.

"I think, in the first years, nothing will change. I think that only in 10, 15 or even 20 years, we will start to live better. I hope, I will be still around by then. But I think, the first years will be same as now," he said.

Some politicians are now working to improve the Euro-mood among Hungarians.

On Thursday, the bell was rung in the city council chamber to summon the members to a debate. The issue was a resolution to strip former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin of his title of honorary citizen of the city.

Still, Mayor Gabor Demszky acknowledges that such gestures will not convince many people that Hungary's next transition is the best way forward.

"Already the system change was a big change in the people's life. They had to accustom to a new world. And now, it is the second stage, and people are afraid of competition, of foreign investors, of foreign capital, and that they are not enough competitive," he said.

Mayor Demszky believes that EU membership will help improve life in Hungary in the long term. And the government plans huge celebrations to mark Hungary's accession to the European Union, in part hoping to generate some enthusiasm among the country's many Euro-skeptics.