A Czech village takes wary stock of its new EU status

On Saturday, the Czech Republic, along with seven other Central and Eastern European states plus Greek Cyprus and Malta, will celebrate its official accession to the European Union, fulfilling the long-held aspirations of the region's political elites. In the coming weeks, the last border posts along the cold war Iron Curtain will be erased, and politicians from the former East Bloc will take seats in the European Parliament.

Incongruously, there will not be many fireworks in the Czech Republic or neighboring countries on accession day. Although 70 percent of Czechs who voted in a referendum last year supported EU membership, public enthusiasm is waning, especially in smaller towns and villages.

"We have to join the European Union or we would be shut out of Europe," says Hana Sarkovicova, a cashier at a tiny hobby shop in Mnichovice, 15 miles south of Prague. "But we are starting to feel like second-class Europeans. The Germans make us jump at every whim. It is already hurting our economy and there aren't really any advantages for a town like this. Our shop is already in trouble and, if prices rise, I may not have a job next month."

Mnichovice, population 2,200, cannot match Prague, the only city in the 10 new EU states economically on par with the European average. Yet the town is probably not poor enough to reap immediate benefits of membership.

Mayor Jakub Zvejkal says Mnichovice won't be receiving any funding from the EU to help the town rebuild its dilapidated roads and infrastructure. "We must join the EU, but there will be no celebrations in this town," he says. Instead, Mnichovice is celebrating its 870th anniversary with a bicycle race this weekend.

The town's mood is typical of a national gloominess, according to Jan Hartl, director of the STEM polling agency. While just over half of Czechs say that the country should join, most (59 percent) believe the Czech economy will suffer. Sixty-eight percent fear their standard of living will fall.

Some are enthusiastic. "It will be great once we can study anywhere in Europe," says Barbara Mladkova, a young student. "The EU has advantages for young people and people in Prague."

At a tiny pub on the square, a meal costs barely $2. Owner Jaroslav Vojiz says the EU has recently required him to put in an $8,000 ventilation system. "And that's just the beginning," he says. "The politicians promised it would be better, and instead the whole economy is far worse."

The radio station warns that prices are likely to fluctuate more than they have since the turbulent years just after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Economists expect commodities from the EU to become cheaper, while prices on most imported products, particularly those from Asia, will rise.

The strain of EU membership is already taking a toll on Mnichovice's economy. The town's one large company, the Czech headquarters of the international retailer Mountfield, next month is moving to a spot on the freeway between Prague and Vienna. Several pubs may closing. The two butcher shops, the bakery, and the grocery store are struggling to make ends meet.

Pavel Marsarek says his bakery will soon go out of business or reduce its staff from 20 to about four. But having done business in Spain, he heaps praise upon the EU legal system and services.

"The [EU] rules are strict, but those who can cope with them will find business is much better than it is outside the EU. In Spain, I got the feeling that state officials were there to support my business, not hinder it, and the kind of omnipresent corruption we have here is unknown."

And Mnichovice is attracting an influx of city dwellers who tend to view the EU more positively.

"I think we can compete in the EU," says Roman Jindra, a programmer who moved recently from Prague. "Our workforce, particularly in the high-tech fields, is more motivated and innovative."

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