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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 May, 2004, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
New entrants offer answers for Old Europe
By Tim Fawcett
BBC News Online business reporter

Man's face painted with EU and Polish flags
Do young people in the east work harder than those in the west?
Less than two weeks after joining the European Union (EU), the mood was exuberant as business leaders and ministers from the 10 new member states travelled to London for high level meetings.

Far from arriving cap in hand with requests for assistance, subsidies or aid; the delegates came armed with solutions to one of the EU's oldest problems - namely that of competitiveness.

"Our biggest asset is young and well educated people. They are extremely adaptive, open and progressive - that's what the Old Europeans are lacking," declared Henryka Bochniarz, President of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers and owner of consultants Nicom.

That opinion was mirrored by Bill Thomas, an executive with EDS, a UK company which plans to open another new office in Hungary.

"The young people work very hard - a big contrast to, say, Germany where some workers try as hard to get a day off," said Mr Thomas.

Reform needed

The message seemed to be that the European Union must change, and that the new member states would do things right in areas where existing member states have been doing it wrong for decades.

Chancellor, Gordon Brown
Mr Brown: "Europe must become more open, more outward looking"
Fortunately, the UK does not consider itself part of Old Europe, so there was no treading on toes.

In fact, the new EU entrants were met with a chorus of approving voices from some of the most powerful figures in this land.

First out was the UK Chancellor Gordon Brown, whose booming voice reverberated around the high vaulted ceilings of the British Foreign Office's Locarno Room where the CBI competitiveness conference was being held.

"All of us must ensure that the new, enlarged Europe must become more open, more outward looking, more flexible, competitive and reforming," Mr Brown declared.

And he received vocal backing from the director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Digby Jones.

Everyone - including Britain - must sharpen up competitiveness "to take the fight to this brutally competitive world", Mr Jones bassooned.

Tough fight

But agreement that reform is urgently needed does not guarantee the new member states a piece of the action, especially when it comes to dishing out the dosh.

Mr Jones insisted that Britain is a strong backer of "a large allocation of resources" to new EU member states to "assist (their) rise in prosperity" and "meet our objectives of helping every economy tackle poverty and unemployment".

But experts cautioned that they will still have to face a tough fight to attract investment from their richer European neighbours.

There is tremendous potential
Colin Adams, chief executive BCCB

Rather than flooding into the new member states, the cash could instead go to fellow eastern bloc countries which have yet to join.

"I don't think that us being left behind is necessarily a bad thing," said lawyer Stephan Kyutchukov from Bulgaria which hopes to join the EU together with Romania in 2007.

"On the contrary, joining brings some disadvantages as well. Bulgaria has a good three years ahead of it when it will have some competitive advantages," Mr Kyutchukov said.

"There is a lot of adjustment and pains of adjusting [to membership]," said Platon Lanitis, chairman of the Cyprus-based Lanitis Group of tourism, construction and farming businesses.

"It creates uncertainty and insecurity. Joining the EU, one can never be really sure what to expect until you get in."

Yet the new entrants should not be disheartened, according to Colin Adams, chief executive of British Consultants and Construction Bureau (BCCB).

Sure, some investment may bypass the new member states and end up in the hands of even more savvy entrepreneurs in the fast growing Asian nations, particularly China, he acknowledged.

"But there is more than enough investment capital to cope with the requirements of these countries," Mr Adams said.

"There is tremendous potential," he added, predicting that the new EU members will adjust well to the "European Club".


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