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International Visegrad Fund

Think Visegrad


Busek, Erhard: The Unique Opportunities of Central Europe - A Chance for Austria

Enlargement is the greatest challenge for Europe in the years ahead. Our shared European identity is something that is all too easily taken for granted. To make the best of our common European identity, we have to continue to engage with the rest of Europe, we have to identify and seize the opportunities that Europe presents, and together we have to shape Europe in the 21st century. We have to acknowledge and identify ourselves as Europeans.

The key to that future is enlargement. The 2004 enlargement of the European Union towards the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) represented a historic process that helped to overcome the artificial separation of the continent. The area of stability, welfare and security that was achieved due to European cooperation after the devastating experience of the Second World War has now been expanded towards the East.

As Austria is situated in the heart of Europe, the continental dimension of the European model of a voluntary combination of free nations is of particular importance to us. Our country is moving more towards the center, both politically, economically and strategically. It has always been the priority of the Austrian government to see the EU enlarged rapidly. We wanted to see the new EU member states taken in swiftly in order to allow for the implementation of the EU's body of laws and practices, and to allow those states to operate as full members of the single market from day one.

As I see now in my new position as the Special Coordinator of the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, and taking into account my previous experience as Enlargement Representative of the Austrian Government, the EU perspective provides for momentous changes, including the ways in which governments relate to their citizens, and how those citizens relate to each other.

Since 1989 we have witnessed profound social and political changes in Central and Eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed the politics of Europe, opening space for a Europe of the future. It meant the end of unnecessary, enforced divisions between national governments, between regional authorities, between towns, and between individuals. And it ended the exclusion of so many members of the European family of nations from the process of European development. Membership in the EU has rebuilt the European family because the EU is precisely about those relationships, at all levels, which are so vital to political, economic, cultural, and social growth and development.

Enlargement has extended the benefits of the single market to all of the new member states, ensuring a level playing field for all participants, and Austrian industry has concentrated heavily on these Eastern markets. In the area of foreign trade, Austria benefited considerably from doing business with the candidate countries of Eastern Europe since the opening of these states: The trade balance surplus of 2003 and 2004, for example, was due to trade with the Visegrad countries, which after Germany are Austria's strongest partners. Between 1989 and 2000, Austria's exports to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland increased more than sixfold, while imports only doubled. The CEEC's share of Austrian exports increased from 4.4 percent in 1989 to 18 percent in 2004.

Since the opening up of the Eastern European markets, Austrian firms have also held a very strong position in the area of direct investment. By 2004, Austrian enterprises had invested more than $20 billion in Eastern European countries, obtaining a market share of 9 percent of existing investment capital. This has led to the establishment of approximately 20,000 Austrian subsidiaries and joint ventures in this area. In some countries, such as Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria is one of the main foreign investors.

But enlargement is not just about economics: It was and remains the only right and sensible response to the changing pressures and circumstances of the past decade and the new century. It cements the sense of stability, the respect for democracy, the promotion of human rights and the cultural diversity for which the candidate countries themselves worked so hard. These are issues and values that cut across national boundaries and that require us to discuss and
cooperate on. Similarly, there are issues on which we need to take joint action, and where the European Union is uniquely well placed to provide common solutions implemented by national governments. As well as the profound political shock brought about by the fall of communism, the last decade has also seen a revolution in how we think about social and economic policy. The EU is a forum for us to explore, and to share and promote that thinking.

Eastern enlargement was a way for us to extend that process. Even before they joined the EU, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had already made great strides in policy areas that affect all our citizens' lives.

Projects of this size inevitably involve risks. There are fears of added strains on the job market, dangers along border areas, disadvantages for agriculture, and excessive financial demands.

These anxieties are not to be dismissed, but one must also avoid horror scenarios. As we have seen since the 10 new member states joined the EU, the attendant problems were handled and the necessary precautions taken by the EU and the candidate countries themselves. The EU and the member states showed responsible and well-planned involvement with the enlargement project. This can be a benchmark for future enlargements, namely towards the countries of the West Balkans. We need to continue with the enlargement project, because it would be wrong to ascribe the current crises in the EU (the two failed referenda on the EU Constitution) to the recent enlargement.

Europe has now finally been brought together. The foundations for cooperation were laid by the revolt against communist rule in Central Europe. It is up to all of us now to build on that cooperation. We have the tools, and the EU and the Visegrad Countries have a wealth of resources to offer each other - human, financial, knowledge-based and physical. The benefits are clear, as are the obligations. It is encouraging to see that the Visegrad Group has now - again - found its place as a forum of political debate. It is encouraging to see increased coordination within the V4, as it proves that regional cooperation is alive and well in the European Union. This not only benefits the participating states, but it also serves as an important role model for the countries of the West Balkans.

Erhard Busek
Austrian politician and writer. Special coordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe (since 2001). Chairman of the Institute for the Danube and Central Europe. Former Vice-Chancellor of Austria (1991-1995).

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