Hungarians divided on EU benefits

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The number of Hungarians who think joining the EU was a good thing has fallen to 31 percent in February, compared with 56 percent prior to accession as the economic crisis continues.

BUDAPEST – Mired in economic crisis, Hungarians voice increasing scepticism about the benefits of EU membership five years after joining the bloc, even if all of them say they enjoy the ability to travel freely within the 27-nation zone.

As Hungary battles its worst economic crisis in almost two decades, the latest Eurobarometer survey showed that the proportion of Hungarians who think joining the EU was a good thing is falling – to 31 percent in February, compared with 56 percent prior to accession.

Nearly half – or some 45 percent – said they thought EU membership was neither good nor bad.

For Maria Bodnar, 32, who studied anthropology, but was working as a camerawoman until she lost her job in the current downturn, Hungary "may have become a bit more open" after joining EU.

But she still believed the terms of EU membership were "disadvantageous", chaining Hungary into an "unbalanced and uncertain system".

And she believed Hungary's cultural heritage was also in danger of being lost.

Others see the economic and financial advantages of EU membership.

Zoltan Borgulya, a 36-year-old road-building contractor in Nagytarcsa, south of Budapest, said joining the bloc has given Hungary access to much-needed development funds.

"Thanks to the EU's co-financing of major projects, construction of roads and motorways has picked up sharply in recent years, even if we're now feeling the recession," Borgulya said.

And because the EU provided funding in euros, not forint, that was particularly beneficial at a time when the Hungarian currency has plummeted on the foreign exchange markets, he argued.

"The EU provides 40-85 percent of pre-financing in euros. This could translate into 110-percent financing of the project" given the forint's fall, he said.

Nevertheless, Istvan Gyure, a 30-year-old IT specialist, pointed out that with the advent of EU money, corruption had also increased.

"Among my colleagues and friends, no one can actually say they've benefited directly from all the support programmes," Gyure said.

"Indeed, some complain that, in order to win a tender, they have to channel half of the money back to corrupt Hungarian officials," he said.

All three interviewees said they enjoyed the freedom to travel anywhere within the EU's borders after Hungary acceded to the Schengen agreement on passport-free borders at the end of 2007.

Bodnar said she had worked several summers in Denmark and loved the feeling of gliding from one country to the next, without having to queue at border checking points.

Contractor Borgulya agreed.

"I know it's because of Schengen rather than EU accession. But every time we visit my family in Slovakia, I'm so happy we can cross the border without having to stop," he said.

For IT specialist Gyure, the advantages of EU membership included the economic stimulus, having a say in European matters, and – at least further on down the line – the possibility of eventually joining the euro.

But he was less sure about what the EU had gained from Hungary's membership.

"I'm not sure what Europe wins with us. We're still a long way off from achieving an economically strong, outwardly unified and inwardly multi-faceted Europe, if that will ever be achieved at all," Gyure said.

AFP / Expatica

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