by Ivan Prikryl (1998)
(Source: Studies and Reports. Thirty-first in the series
The Impact of the European Unionís Enlargement on Co-operatives. Papers presented at a seminar held in Prague 3-4 November 1997, p. 7-10 )
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honour for me and for the whole of the Czech co-operative movement to welcome you today to this important seminar which should help the co-operative movements in Central and Eastern Europe in their orientation and perspectives for the coming period of European economic and political integration. We are very aware of the activities of the International Co-operative Alliance in the European region and we thank it for including this seminar in its working plan.
Our organisation and the co-operative movement as a whole have undoubtedly played an important part in the economies of our countries. The co-operative movement, on the threshold of the 21st century, has been formulating its aims and expressing its belief in the future. Our activities have, however, been more specific. We have not only been an entrepreneurial subject, but according to our traditions, acknowledged values and co-operative principles, we have also been a platform for democracy, solidarity and other activities aimed at benefiting our members.
Shortly after World War II the European integration tendencies took on a new form. Originally the aim was to rebuild effectively the European area after the devastation of the war, to strengthen the collective security structures and to collaborate. The world association of nations gained a new meaning, the UN Charter was signed, the Marshall plan was started and the Organisation for European Economic Collaboration was constituted. Unfortunately, in the second half of the 40s, the political division between East and West Europe came about and the "Cold War" started. The dictatorial and power ambitions of the communist regimes affected and restricted the freedom of opportunity for development by Central and Eastern Europe. When the inhabitants of these regions came down to earth following their early enthusiastic efforts, these regimes resorted to blocking information and blackening everything coming from the Western side of the so called " Iron Curtain". While the West was thinking of integration and collaboration, the Eastern states bowed down to the paternalistic influence of the Soviet Union and effectively became its satellites.
This led Europe to the situation in which it found itself at the turn of the 80s and 90s. As a result of their liberalisation from the Communist regimes, the countries of eastern Europe awoke to reality. They all started to realise that Europe bordered on the Urals, not on the Eastern border of the united Germany. We all began to understand that the only guarantee of future prosperity lay in joining Europe because it alone would be able to survive in competition with the strong economies of America and South East Asia. In 1991 association agreements with Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia were signed. Europe already had much experience with the association of individual countries to the existing structures because in 1973 Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom joined, followed in 1981 by Greece and in 1986 by Spain and Portugal.
In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty was signed and this was to be the outline of a new quality of collaboration. Apart from economic collaboration, projects concerning monetary union, foreign and defence and security co-ordination and policy, plus other aspects were initiated.
In our country, the Czech Republic, a lot has been said by our politicians about our entry into Europe. Integration into the European Union and NATO is understood to be a necessary move, and our findings prove that the majority of our inhabitants support this. They wish to live in a united, democratic Europe which they see as the opposite pole to the Communist regime spontaneously rejected by them. Doubts about adherence to democratic principles are currently being discussed and assessed as we know from our own experience that ideas about what our entry into Europe will in fact entail have been in many cases simplistic and naive. It is obvious that integration into Europe has not been a process with immediate beneficial effects, but we do understand that attaining the best results from integration requires the fulfilment of certain criteria. In the countries of Eastern and Central Europe it is necessary to reach a certain level of economic and political life in order to be able to really consider integration. For the future prosperity of Europe and the individual countries it is necessary to adopt a number of limitations, to harmonise the legislation with that of the EU and to amend various other norms, economic parameters and data. It is also necessary to integrate customs, banking, tax, company and accounting regulations and many other criteria to form a common basis. In 1993 an association treaty and other relevant documents were signed which clearly formulated these conditions.
The International Co-operative Alliance and its European regional bodies wish to give the co-operative organisations of Eastern and Central Europe as much help and useful information as possible, together with their experience gained from practical situations in the past. The comparison of the ideas of some of the earlier associated countries with the eventual realities has given valuable information to those of us who will sooner or later face this process. The mobility of capital, goods and services, free competition and the liberalisation of markets and the establishment of the so-called "European Co-operative Society" or "Co-operative Across Boundaries" (i.e. a co-operative society whose membership, territory and activities will cross state borders), will require a number of changes to our activities and ideas. The expected economic growth as a result of these complex and targeted efforts will, in my opinion, come only after certain and perhaps lengthy delays. It will entail a retaining of the low inflation rate, tax harmonisation and an increase in competition. Prosperity will not come by itself. There are many politicians who see this integration as a demanding and painful process, as indeed it may be, but there is no other acceptable alternative for our future.
It is difficult now, when we open our joint meetings, to speak about any concrete issues which will sooner or later have some impact on all our countries. We are representatives of non-governmental institutions but, nevertheless, our traditions and principles include terms such as collaboration, solidarity, communication. I would like to propose just one thing, that this seminar should see the start of a process of regular meetings and consultations. ICA Europe should consider the establishment of working groups to deal with the collection of relevant information. Seminars similar to this one should be held every year in one of the East or Central European countries in order to disseminate this information. Also we should think more about our tasks in the future Europe, and about our contributions to the meeting of our future common needs. What I have in mind is the setting up of working groups for consultations on harmonisation of legislation, technical norms and the co-ordination of business activities, not only within our joint economic area but also towards markets of Asia, Africa, America, etc.
I believe that this seminar will fulfill all your expectations and will positively influence your work. Please allow me to welcome you all to Prague, and express the wish that you will find your time here very enjoyable.
President of the Co-operative Association of the Czech Republic
Member of the ICA Board