CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

March 28, 2002 Hopes rise for Eastern European integration into the EU



by Barbara Black

A recent symposium at Concordia explored the progress of the “Visegrad group,” an organization that gets scant attention in North America but could be a lifeline for the countries that were once under Soviet domination.

Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have been linked in a sort of free-trade agreement signed in 1991 in the northern Hungarian city of Visegrad to help its members gain membership in NATO and the European Union.

Here in Montreal, Concordia’s Department of Political Science and the Canadian Foundation for Polish Studies, with the cooperation of the Czech, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish communities, held a conference last Saturday called Returning to Europe: The Visegrad Countries and Post-Communist Realities. It took place in the D.B. Clarke Auditorium, and attracted about 150 participants.

“It attracted a pretty good crowd, and a high level of discussion,” said George Frajkor, a Canadian-born broadcast journalist of Slovakian immigrant parentage who worked for the CBC in Montreal and taught at Carleton University and in Slovakia. “There were students there who asked excellent questions, and obviously knew something about the subject.”

One of the speakers was James Wojtasiewicz, deputy director of European security and political affairs for the U.S. State Department. Frajkor reported that Wojtasiewicz was blunt but not discouraging about the Visegrad group’s prospects for European integration.

Wojtasiewicz said that labels aren’t important. Although the current government in Poland includes many former Communist Party members (they now call themselves social democrats), the essential thing is that they have embraced free speech, the rule of law and other tenets of democracy. However, Wojtasiewicz added that the Eastern European countries must continue along this path.

Wojtasiewicz said that security will be an important issue for the region. The Visegrad countries can’t expect to get the benefits of NATO protection without making their own contributions, financial or in kind, such as the Czech republic presence with NATO allies in the Afghanistan war.

While the U.S. generally supports the EU’s plans to establish an internal security force, Wojtasiewicz warned that the Americans would not like this military initiative to sap Europe’s commitment to NATO.

A different sort of challenge was presented by John Micgiel, a political scientist from Columbia University. He reminded the audience that about 24 per cent of Poland’s population live in the countryside, a much larger proportion than in Western Europe. Their brand of farming is subsistence, or at least small-scale, quite different from that practiced in such countries as Germany and France.

The entry of Poland into the EU, with its small but powerful and sophisticated farm lobby, could have dire consequences for both parties. Western Europe could find itself swimming in cheap surplus farm produce, while in Poland, farmers could be forced off their land on a scale that would bring dramatic social disruption.

Other speakers were Lenka Anna Rovna, of Charles University, in Prague; Csaba Nikolenyi, of Concordia; and Christina Stojanova, of the University of Alberta. Professor Rovna said that the EU does not appear to favour the idea of admitting at the same time all nine countries now wishing to join, including the Visegrad group.

Most of the speakers steered clear of a quarrel that stalled the latest Eastern European summit. The Visegrad Four, plus representatives of a cluster of other countries with partial membership, were supposed to hold a summit on March 1 in Budapest, but a quarrel broke out over the Hungarian government’s efforts to protect ethnic Hungarians in countries along its border.

The conference was the brainchild of Concordia Professor Marika Pruska-Carroll and Irene Tomaszkewski, an author, activist and former president of the Canadian Federation for Polish Studies.

The well-informed students were from Pruska-Carroll’s class in Russian politics. In fact, many of the same students took her course in the politics of Eastern Europe last year, and her seminar in post-communism.

For her, this was a remarkably successful event that brought together academics, members of the diplomatic community and former citizens of these countries on a subject of common interest. “One after another, people got up and declared their intention of repeating this experience,” she said.

It also galvanized her students. “They wouldn’t let me out of class today,” she said several days later. “They wanted to keep talking about the conference.”

The important thing for George Frajkor was to explain the Visegrad group to a general audience in Canada that knows little about the globalization and integration movements in Europe. He felt that the Visegrad four should take in Slovenia and become the Visegrad five, so that even within the EU they would have a powerful, united bloc of votes.