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Last Updated: Monday, 26 May, 2003, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Czechs lukewarm on EU

By William Horsley
BBC Europe correspondent

The countries of central and eastern Europe which threw off communist rule have had to struggle for more than 10 years to pass a series of tests before they could join the club of their choice, the European Union.

I think European Union is not good for us, we must say no in the referendum, to make social justice
Zdenek Stefek
Communist Youth League

As the recent referendums on EU membership - in Hungary and Slovakia - have shown, enthusiasm for joining the club is nothing like as strong now as it used to be.

A campaign is now under way in the Czech Republic, before the referendum there on 13-14 June.

The "no" camp would of course like to stay out of the EU altogether. And even those in the "yes" camp say they want to change it.

Prague Old Town Square
Tourists are bringing more and more wealth to Prague

Zdenek Stefek, head of the still-powerful Communist Youth league, is using a Mayday workers' rally to tell working people they should vote "no" in the referendum on EU membership.

"I think European Union is not good for us, we must say no in the referendum, to make social justice," he says.

"European leaders are, I don't know if they are enemy ... they are heads of international capital."

On stage, Zdenek tells the crowds that the EU exploits workers, that 10 years of capitalism have put millions out of work and brought profits only for the rich and powerful.

And that prices will go up and wages down when the Czechs join the union. When, not if. Because the opponents of membership know they are probably going to lose the vote.

But in the streets of Prague, tourists from all over the world are bringing more wealth to this charmed city. The Czechs have one of the most developed economies in the region, and EU membership will help bring the general standard of living up to that in Western Europe.

Shadow of the past

The parks above the Vltava river are full of people out enjoying the beer gardens and the sunshine.

Twice in the last century, without the US Europe would have been lost. And I don't understand the French and German politicians who try to break this bridge
Monika Pajerova
Yes for Europe campaign
"I will vote yes for the European Union to get better options for travelling and working... and to be part of Europe," says, says Eva Hnevkovska, 28, who works in advertising.

Eva's experience is typical of many of her generation. The anti-communist revolution of 1989, the Velvet Revolution, swept away the dead hand of state control and Russian domination.

Yet 14 years later, ambitious people like Eva are still suffering from the shadow of the past.

"When the revolution came, I was in my teens and expected to join earlier," she said.

For her, EU entry means normal job opportunities in Western Europe, rather than cleaning toilets or working illegally in restaurants.

In one of Prague's busy video production studios, a team is putting together a TV advertisement to remind Czechs to go and vote in this referendum on their future.

'Living bridge'

And in a Prague cafe, I met Monika Pajerova after she had just launched the Yes for Europe campaign.

Demonstration during Velvet Revolution
The Velvet Revolution swept away state control
Monika was a student leader who helped bring about the revolution. She is now a powerful advocate for joining the EU, but she speaks out plainly about what she sees as its faults.

"I am persuaded that a living bridge between the US and Europe is needed," she says.

"Twice in the last century, without the US Europe would have been lost. And I don't understand the French and German politicians who try to break this bridge."

And like many of the new generation of Czech political leaders, Monika wants her country to have a real influence on the future of the EU.

"That's why it's so important that enlargement takes place, and more countries of central and eastern Europe join the efforts of small and medium-sized countries to have more influence on European development than France and Germany," she says.

For more than 10 years, EU enlargement has been mostly about the future members catching up. Very soon, the Czechs and others will be in, and it is clear they will have plenty to say for themselves.

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