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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 June, 2004, 18:51 GMT 19:51 UK
Euro-euphoria fades in new states
By Stephen Sackur
BBC, in the Czech Republic and Slovakia

Little more than a month ago the streets of Prague and Bratislava were awash with cheap Champagne and flag-waving crowds.

Membership of the European Union, which had taken a decade to achieve, was a cause for genuine celebration.

Slovakian and Polish officials dismantle border post
EU excitement has given way to election apathy
Strange then, that the EU's newest citizens seem so thoroughly underwhelmed by the prospect of voting for a union-wide parliament.

Jiri Pehe, for many years a trusted adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel, has an explanation.

"It took us so long to be accepted into the club, you made it so hard for us, and now we're wondering what all the fuss was about," he says.

Call it the hangover effect, but there's more to it than a sense of anti-climax.

There is also a serious lack of information and understanding in the new member states about the role of the European Parliament and its elected members.

Our first experience of European elections will be the hardest, but we'll learn how the system works
Jiri Pehe
Czech advisor
Try explaining the mechanics of the "co-decision" process to a group of elderly Slovaks who know only one thing about Brussels: it's an awfully long way from Bratislava (970 km or 602 miles to be precise.)

Which isn't to blame the Slovaks. There's little sign of greater public interest or knowledge in many of the long-established member states who have been sending MEPs to Brussels for years.

And as Jiri Pehe puts it: "We have to start somewhere. Our first experience of European elections will be the hardest, but we'll learn how the system works, we'll see our MEPS taking important decisions, and we'll benefit from the experience."

In the Czech Republic 24 seats are up for grabs, and opinion polls suggest the outcome of the vote will be determined by domestic concerns.

That may not be good news for Vladimir Spidla whose Social Democratic Party is suffering a familiar case of the mid-term blues.

Communists

But with some analysts predicting a national turn-out of little more than 30% there's another factor: those parties with the best organisation and the most motivated voters will perform disproportionately well.

Celebrations in Prague
EU membership was greeted in style in the Czech Republic and Slovakia
Whisper it softly in Brussels, but that may mean a delegation of unreconstructed communists heading from the Czech Republic to the European Parliament.

Last week I went to a communist rally in the small Czech town of Jihlava.

About 100 people had gathered in the central square. The average age seemed to be 70 and undoubtedly some of the silver-haired crowd had come for the free goulash and beer, but others plainly shared the CP's distaste for the free-market realities of the 21st Century Czech Republic.

Nowadays the communists don't demonise the EU as a capitalist plot, they simply want to "remodel" it for the good of the workers.

Moreover they have a genuine celebrity to pedal their message.

Thanks to the Soviet space programme Vladimir Remek was the first non-Soviet citizen in space. He was a hero to a generation of Czechs brought up in the years before 1989, and he still attracts admiring crowds wherever he goes.

Expect to see cosmonaut-comrade Remek winning a seat in the new European Parliament.

It's just possible that Czechs might vote for an even more outlandish candidate.

She goes by the name of Dolly Buster, which tells you all you need to know about her physical assets and her political insights.

Porn past

Dolly was a poor Czech girl who made it big in the porn industry.

For years she starred in German sex movies before becoming a producer and the owner of a string of sex shops.

Now she wants a seat in the Brussels assembly, though it's not clear why.

"I'll put the Czech Republic on the front-page of every newspaper," she told me. It sounded more like a threat than a promise.

There is though a serious point to be made about the slew of celebrities, odd-balls and misfits standing for election in the new member states.

They, and the parties they represent, have realised that the absence of an informed debate on European issues the best way to rouse interest in this lacklustre campaign season is to provide novelty, human interest.

Some would call it opportunism.

Peter Stastny
Peter Stastny says he'll give parliament job a shot
Take the decision of the Democratic Coalition in Slovakia to draft Peter Stastny as their number one candidate.

Mr Stastny was once a brilliant ice-hockey player, but he lives in America and has no political experience.

No matter. He has name recognition and popular appeal so he will be going to Brussels to grapple with the EU budget and other such weighty matters.

I asked Mr Stastny if he was truly committed to his new career.

"I know how important it is to have a voice in the European Parliament," he told me gravely.

But then he added: "Look, I'll give it my best shot, but if I'm not having fun after one or two years? Hey, I'll just walk away with a smile on my face."

That sounds like the insouciance of youth. Hardly surprising in a country gearing up for its first European election.

But Mr Stastny better prepare himself for a shock. Being a player in the EU club can be challenging and rewarding, but rarely do MEPs or their constituents describe it as "fun".


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