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European Union

Still believing in the EU

When their countries joined the EU in 2004, many young people in eastern Europe were extremely hopeful. But have they managed to retain their positive outlook throughout the economic crisis? DW takes a look.

The EU adventure started with a huge party. Laura Tatrelyte was 17 at the time and celebrated with her friends from school as crowds of thousands gathered in the center of Vilnius to celebrate Lithuania's EU accession. Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus joined the EU that same day.

"There were street parties and music in Vilnius. A lot of people were waving little EU flags," says Tatrelyte, who has been working for several months as an intern at the Bundestag in Berlin. "At midnight, in the first moments of May 1, 2004, people with flashlights and lighters formed chains of light. It was all very moving for me. I had the feeling that something big was happening."

Laura Tatarelyte
(Photo: Laura Tatarelyte)

Laura Tatarelyte remembers being very excited when Lithuania joined the EU

Since she was underage at the time, Tatrelyte was not allowed to take part in the Lithuanian referendum on EU accession. She was still at school, but she followed events with great interest and was happy when she found out that around 90 percent of Lithuanians gave the EU their yes vote in 2003.

The other EU accession countries also all held a similar referendum that same year, with the exception of Cyprus. Vlastimil Brom from the Czech Republic didn't want to miss the chance to vote for his country's EU accession, even though the German studies student was in Germany at the time on a study abroad program. He took a long train journey in order to be in the Czech Republic for the referendum.

"I was convinced that this is the right path for our country, and that hasn't changed even today," says Brom, who is now teaches in the German department at Masaryk University in Brünn.

For him, the country's EU accession had an important symbolic meaning even then. "I wanted the fact that we belong to the European cultural area to be confirmed officially."

Living and working multinationally

After 2004, things "became noticeably easier" for him as an academic. Waiting for hours in front of the German embassy in Prague to apply for a visa in Germany became a thing of the past. When he was doing research in Würzburg for his postdoctoral lecture qualification two years ago, "It all worked without formalities." It wasn't a problem for him to take his wife and his two small children along for the year-long research trip.

Vlastimil Brom with his family in Würzburg
(Photo: Vlastimil Brom)

After the Czech Republic joined the EU, academic Vlastimil Brom came to Germany with his family for a research trip

Another change was that, at his home university of Brünn, he also met more students from other European countries, for example those who had come to the Czech Republic for a semester on the "Erasmus" program.

"Most of my Czech students now take it for granted that the borders are open in the EU," says the 37-year-old.

Bundestag scholarship holder Laura Tatarelyte did an internship in Dresden during her law degree in Lithuania.

'With open arms'

"In 2004, the gates to Europe opened for us. Our parents could have only dreamed of the chances we have now." She wants to gain professional experience in Germany and other EU countries, but hopes to return to Lithuania one day.

Weronika Mika, who was born and grew up in Poland, can theoretically imagine living and working in any EU country.

"All of these countries have the basic structures for establishing something - but of course that is hard work, and you can't expect to just be received with open arms," says the 29-year-old, who studied in Bielefeld and now works in Bonn as a commercial lawyer.

Mika began making bold journeys into the unknown earlier than most of her contemporaries both in the East and West: At 16, she was already working in the catering industry in Germany during her vacations.

Weronika Mika 
(Photo: DW/Alexandra Scherle)

Weronika Mika, a Polish lawyer working in Bonn, feels European

"When Poland became an EU member in 2004, I was very excited, but I was also worried about the economic development of the country - for example, that the population might be adversely affected by rising prices," Mika remembers.

Indeed, in the years after Poland's EU accession, prices did rise in Poland.

But as the Polish weekly newspaper "Polityka" emphasized as early as 2011, salaries also went up.

EU membership provides security

But the financial crisis in the EU has also left many disillusioned, including people in the ten countries that enthusiastically joined the EU in 2004. People wondered whether the EU had lost its luster.

Weronika Mika doesn't think so. "I still believe in the European Union. It's a blessing that all these countries have been living together so peacefully for so many years."

Mika thinks that the fact that there are crises every once and a while is completely normal. "That kind of thing happens in private households and families as well," says the young academic, who has a Polish and a German passport but sees herself primarily as European.

Laura Tatrelyte hasn't lost confidence in Europe, either. She thinks that for her and many other people from the Baltic states that used to be part of the Soviet Union, EU membership means a lot more than the freedom to travel and academic or professional opportunities abroad - particularly within the context of the Ukraine crisis.

"As EU members, we can feel safe," she says.

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