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September 30th, 2007

EU entry: The unrealized dream

One year on, small-town life shows hopes were set too high

Vladislav Raska, mayor of Decin.
By Peter Kononczuk
Staff Writer, The Prague Post



One year after the country entered the European Union with high hopes of a better future, everyday life for the citizens of Decin has barely changed, says Mayor Vladislav Raska.

That, however, was to be expected, he adds.

New member states joined the European club with unrealistic expectations, says Raska, as he sits under a blue EU flag in his mayoral offices, pondering the last 12 months.

"Whether it is in the EU, or everyday life, my opinion is that you have to work hard for everything: without work, no dessert," he continues, quoting a Czech proverb.

EU accession is not a panacea for the problems of Decin, a north Bohemian city of 52,000 inhabitants located on the River Labe, just 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the German border.

Membership has had no impact on the city's unemployment rate, which is almost 15 percent, says Raska, 44, a member of the right-wing Civic Democratic Party who has been mayor since 2002.

The national unemployment average is 9.6 percent.

"People are not leaving here to work abroad, neither are citizens of EU member states coming in significant numbers to settle in our city," according to Raska.

Neither has EU entry affected Decin's ongoing problems with street prostitution.

Decin has, however, received a slice of the European cake.

Municipal authorities have secured a 233,000 euro ($302,900/7.1 million Kc) EU subsidy for reconstructing access roads to Decin's centuries-old castle, and a grant of 138,000 euros for building a sports area. And the city is submitting bids for further subsidies.

Meanwhile, Raska says, without giving a figure, that towns in the neighboring German state of Saxony receive much more money from EU funds designed to promote cross-border cooperation — an imbalance he wants redressed as quickly as possible.

In her offices in downtown Decin, Alice Klaubenschalkova, editor in chief of Decinsky denik, the city's daily newspaper, says that accession may be important for official bodies seeking European cash, but most ordinary people are not much interested in the European Union.

Statistics bear out her opinion. Decin is in the Usti nad Labem region, which in the June 2003 referendum on EU entry saw the country's second-lowest voter turnout, 50.02 percent.

One theoretical advantage for local people is that they can now easily travel across the border to shop in Germany. However, most don't have the money to do so, Klaubenschalkova says.

She adds, "I think the fact that we are in the EU will be understood and taken advantage of by the next generation."

In Decin's Business Academy, the process is already underway. A poster in the academy's hallway advertises a course that offers a "gateway to Europe." The tantalizing promise refers to a program, one of only two in the country, according to the academy, that specifically prepares students for a job as a "European economic assistant."

Pupils like 16-year-old Dominika Michnova focus on economics, math, geography, English and French.

"I want to work in a European institution, such as the European Parliament, as a secretary," says Michnova.

If that plan does not work out, Michnova believes her course in Decin will provide her with a good grounding for becoming an entrepreneur.

The academy's deputy director, Jana Bohmova, says she hopes the European course, now in its second year, will prove a model for other schools.

Bohmova started working at the Business Academy in 1969. If at that time someone had suggested she could end up overseeing a program that aims to get its pupils to Brussels, Bohmova says she would have dismissed the notion as "science fiction."

Jiri Aster, a Decin native, chairman of its Chamber of Commerce and a city council member, says the country's 12 months in the EU have brought advantages but also new problems.

Aster, 59, is an executive director of Cesko-saske pristavy (Czech-Saxon Ports), whose parent company runs six ports on the River Labe.

His firm has been promised 2.5 million Kc ($107,665) in EU funds, part of which is to help finance a study on the redevelopment of ports in Decin and nearby Lovosice.

On the other hand, Aster says that EU entry has put his company under increased pressure from German environmentalists who want to restrict use of river transportation by industry.

Aster believes that the pluses of EU entry outweigh the minuses. "I'm 100 percent a Euro-optimist," he says.

Jitka Topolancinova, 32, the manager of a Decin delicatessen, has a similar view.

She was one of the 75 percent of local residents who voted Yes to EU entry. She also intends to vote in favor of the European constitution if a referendum is held.

Topolancinova says that one change over the past 12 months is that her shop offers more products, because it now has a wider range supplied by dealers.

For Monika Stipkova and her husband Jaroslav, both 32, entry into the European Union is closely tied to their hopes of a better future.

Out on a walk in the center of Decin, her baby son asleep in a pram by her side, Stipkova, a shop assistant, said she is worried that after returning from maternity leave, her employer may ask her if she plans to have more children.

She says she also dislikes the way some employers impose a maximum age limit when seeking new staff.

Stipkova hopes that accession to the EU will encourage the Czech Republic to modernize its employment practices and follow the example of more progressive countries.

— Petr Kaspar contributed to this report.



Peter Kononczuk can be reached at pkononczuk@praguepost.com






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