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Czechs Appear Poised to Reap EU Membership Benefits - 2004-05-04

Strategically located in the heart of Central Europe and enjoying economic and political stability, the Czech Republic is in a good position to gain from European Union membership. The nation of 10 million has long ties with the West and has a somewhat different perspective on what EU membership means.

A new chapter in Czech history, a return to the European family, an economic opportunity. People in the Czech Republic see EU membership in a variety of ways. Petr Jezek a director in the Czech Prime Minister's office, said that the nation is finally taking its seat back at the European table, after being locked out for more than half a century.

"In symbolic terms it can be seen as our comeback to the family of democratic countries," he said. "We left that family in the middle of the last century and now we are coming back. Because we always were, before, were in Europe and were integrated and we always were in the heart of Europe."

The Czech Republic has been described as one of the most westernized of the 10 new EU members. There are a number of cultural and historical reasons for this. Jiri Pehe, the director of New York University in Prague, believes Czech ties with the West are long and strong.

"Czech lands were part of the holy Roman empire, of the German nation first," he noted. "For many centuries then of course, the Hapsburg empire. Both of these empires were unquestionably western. So Czechs have long traditions of western culture and certainly this was one of the reasons why many Czechs felt that they were taken into an alien culture or territory when they had to live under Soviet dominance."

To many Czechs, EU membership is not all about culture and history. It is about opening the country's economy, communications and trade to the rest of the world. According to Mr. Jezek of the Prime Minister's office, nations can no longer isolate themselves from economic and other pressures.

"The government realizes that the world is changing rapidly and there is quite keen competition between the biggest regions," he said. "We think that a central European country cannot go efficiently on its own in this world but can better off, or can move ahead in the Union with other countries."

Economist Petr Zahradnik, of the Central European Banking Group, predicts membership in the European Union will bring many economic benefits for the Czechs. He said that the EU will mean goods and services at a better prices, of greater quality and more variety for Czech people.

"The main advantage in my opinion consists in the ability of not only big companies, but also SMEs [small and medium businesses] and individuals or family firms to compete with their European Union competitors," he added. "I see an advantage also for our consumers because the result of the EU enlargement, the competition on the local Czech market will be strengthened. I think in terms of price, as well as quality and offer [a variety] of goods and services."

Beneath the economic realities, Mr. Zahradnik said that there is also a psychological factor associated with EU membership. He believes it is like raising one's reputation by becoming a new member of an exclusive club. With increased reputation, he says, will come increased investment over time.