On the stroke of midnight
May 1st 2004 will forever be remembered as an historic day by Europeans. The existing 15 member states of the EU today welcome an additional 10 members, mostly from Eastern Europe into the union. During 2003 and 2004 I’ve visited nearly all of the countries that joined today, with the exceptions of Slovenia and Czech Republic. In all the countries I visited there was both a sense of excitement at becoming a member and also trepidation, worrying that traditions, languages and ways of life will be lost.
In Hungary where I’ve spent most of the last 8 months, the EU is generally welcomed. But also a sense of loss is held by many, after so many years of being an unwilling member of the Soviet Union to finally gaining freedom in 1991, and after such a short time of independence now sacrificing it again to the EU. In the EU media an off quoted statistic is that 80% of people in Hungary voted to join the EU in a referendum. Unfortunately overlooked is that the turnout was only 25% - a record low.
The younger educated people I’ve met mostly see the EU as a great personal opportunity, they
will able to go the existing richer members of the EU, and earn up to ten times the amount that they could expect to earn in Hungary. The existing members also see this as a great opportunity, with well educated enthusiastic workers heading to them to bolster over-stretched and under staffed health care systems, boast tax payments supporting the rising costs of pensions required for ageing populations.
The older generations in Hungary are worried that prices will rise, the doctors and healthcare professionals will leave for the west and leave them with a shell of a country. These fears in the short term are very valid, prices will rise, housing costs have rocketed over the past 5 years, food prices rise regularly and costs set by the governments of regions rise by much more than inflation. But in the long term the benefits will filter through. The younger generations will return after a sabbatical in the west and bring with them savings, supporting older relatives and returning to a country in which most have a vast nationalistic pride.
Every town and city across the region marked this event in some way or other. Pecs in the south-west of
Hungary a beautiful historic town, marked the event by blocking traffic the central square (Szechenyi ter), building a stage, showcasing local bands, serving beer, wine and food across the town. The town partied and at the stroke of midnight May 1st 2004 fireworks were set off over the historic buildings of the old town.
Drinking and celebrating with my friends from all over Europe and Hungary in Szechenyi square I couldn’t help noticing the monuments left in the town from 3 era’s lay behind the 12 star laden temporary stage. The architecture of Pecs dates mainly from the Habsburg empire, the church behind the stage was formerly a mosque from the Ottoman Empire and looming over the town on the low foothills of the Mecsek stands a 192m TV tower from the Soviet era.
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