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Last Updated: Friday, 30 April, 2004, 12:48 GMT 13:48 UK
Wait-and-see Hungary lukewarm on EU
By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online, Budapest

Hungary may be one of the EU's biggest new members, but it is probably not one of its most enthusiastic.

Although most Hungarians would agree that being part of Europe is their future, many believe it will really only affect the next generation.

Hungary has waited 10 years to join the EU

This is the country which voted in favour of joining in its referendum last year, but only 46% of its electorate took part - one of the lowest turnouts of all the countries that consulted their people on enlargement.

This attitude can be explained with reference to both the recent and the more distant past.

Back in 1956, when Hungary rose up against Communism, protesters were led to believe the West would come to their help. But they did not, and Russian tanks re-invaded.

Then in 1994, Hungary became one of the first former Communist countries of Eastern Europe to apply for EU membership.

But it took 10 years for its EU wishes to be granted.

When asked at a press briefing earlier this year about Hungary's apparent lack of enthusiasm for membership, its commissioner-designate Peter Balazs replied that having asked "for the hand of the princess 10 years ago", it was natural that Hungary's enthusiasm was fading.


This lack of enthusiasm seems to persist here in the capital, Budapest.

"I am not sure the EU will be really good for us. We won't become richer, it won't happen in our time," says restaurant owner Lajos Tisza, 34.

Budapest restaurant owner Lajos Tisza
Businessman Lajos Tisza is not sure he will see the benefits of the EU

"This is the future, I know, but I don't know how long it will take for us to be on the same level as the rest of Europe and for our standard of living to rise."

By most estimates, it will take several years for this to happen.

There is no sentimentalism about the Communist era, although for some it meant greater security and predictability.

"Before you needed one job to be able to have a good life, with holidays; now people need to hold down at least two jobs to be able to have the basics.

"It is better now as we have prospects to improve as a nation. Under the Communists, we were going down and we believed something that wasn't true."

Euro fears

At the popular Nagycsarnok market in central Budapest, shoppers are similarly ambivalent.

Stall at Nagycsarnok market in Budapest
There are fears Hungary will be flooded with foreign goods
A group of pensioners say they have noticed prices going up, even though Hungary is not likely to join the euro for another few years.

"We don't know what will happen when we join," says one. "We will know more in a few months' time."

"Prices keep going up though," says another. "There are rumours prices will go up even more when the euro comes in."

Soon an argument is in full swing, which reflects divisions not dissimilar to the debates going on in other parts of the EU.

The discussion turns towards Communism. "In the old days, there was more security to some extent, but it was worse because of persecution," says one, Erzsebet, a retired teacher whose sons live abroad.

"We didn't get help in 1956 from the West when we needed help. We only got promises, we only got lies."

In her view, not much has changed.


For the younger generation, joining the EU means greater prospects of travelling and perhaps working abroad.

Students at the University of Economics, Budapest, L to R: Mate, Veronika, Mariann
The young generation may be the one to benefit from enlargement
Veronika, a 19-year-old student at the University of Economics in Budapest, looks forward to travelling, but is not sure Hungarians will be welcome abroad.

She would like to spend some time in Germany, she says. "But I couldn't live there for ever. EU countries don't like immigration, they don't like that Hungarians emigrate."

For Mate, also 19, "the EU is the only way to improve our agriculture and political life."

But despite embracing enlargement, he is not expecting a transformation overnight.

"We hope it will make life easier in a few years' time," he says.

"But it's not going to happen straight away."

EU enlargement quiz: Hungary
15 Apr 04  |  Europe


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