On the bus ride to Bratislava, our guide, Ivanka talked about the European Union and living under communism as she did as a Romanian. Given the “Brexit” controversy and upcoming vote (at the time), there was a lot of interest among our group about the issue.
Twenty-eight of Europe’s fifty countries are members of the European Union, and twenty-three of those members are part of the passport agreement making travel within those countries much easier. Now with “Brexit,” it will be interesting to see what possible economic fallout lies ahead.
It was interesting to hear Ivanka’s perspective. Her stories about the transition were also fascinating, sad, and humorous at times.
Since jobs, food, and basic needs were provided by the government under communist rule, people didn’t know how to search for a job after communism ended in 1989. They had to learn to think and do things for themselves- something that had never been encouraged or necessary in the past.
The concept of how to successfully use credit and debit cards was confusing, and most people didn’t understand the difference. They had seen credit cards being used on TV shows, but never had much of their own money to budget or manage. Many people went into debt using credit cards not understanding how interest accumulated over time.
Adapting to a new system and rules was a problem for many. Could you imagine going to sleep one night in 1989 under communist rule and waking up the next morning as a free citizen under a capitalistic system? Then, imagine seeing your country become part of the European Union with another set of rules.
Farmers experienced a lot of difficult changes. The national agriculture system and co-ops had to be dismantled, and land returned to its rightful owners. Newly independent farmers now had to obey new EU rules (including what size their produce had to be to qualify for export), and those who wanted to export their produce had to pay for expensive permits to do so. The problem was that nobody had the money to apply for those permits, so most farmers settled on being independent farmers and sold their produce at local farmer’s markets, instead.
Transition to the E.U. was difficult, and corruption was prevalent—one of the reasons Britain voted to exit.
Bulgaria and Romania joined the E.U. in 2007, and western countries were taxed to support those countries who weren’t yet able to contribute to the system. If a gallon of milk cost 6 Euro, 70% of that cost went to E.U. tax. The income disparity was huge, though, and a lack of balance between Western Europe and Eastern Europe was evident. Western Europeans earn on average of 1,500-1,800 Euros per month, whereas Eastern Europeans earn only 150-300 Euros per month.
In addition, The V.A.T. (Value Added Tax) is 20-25% in all E.U. countries, and there is a flat income tax of 16-18%; so, it has been very difficult for Eastern Europeans for survive on their meager earnings. Add that to the 5% medical tax they must pay on basic coverage (not including dental), and it’s a wonder how they can survive at all. Housing is so expensive to purchase that most people do not own their homes and must live with extended family.
In 2004 and 2007 when Eastern European countries joined the E.U., it was too expensive for younger people to live, so they left for other countries and became guest workers. There was a mass emigration and brain drain to companies like Microsoft who were savy to recruit brilliant minds at a great bargain price.
Over the years, politically-motivated decisions have been made by the E.U. that many people opposed, but the without a referendum to vote on, the people had no choice in the matter. The Euro currency was one of those political decisions that many Eastern Europeans disagreed with, because the Euro made things so much more expensive.
Easter Europeans are so poor that when McDonald’s came to Bucharest, it was such a special treat that groups would organize field trips to go. Nobody had much money, so McDonald’s was expensive and viewed much the way a fancy restaurant is viewed by a middle-class American.
One of the humorous stories Ivanka told about growing up under communism rule in Bucharest was hearing how the TV show “Dallas” was all the rage once communism ended. Everybody wanted to have hairstyles and clothing exactly like the Dallas characters had and would ask for it at salons and shops.
It boiled down to this: Freedom meant something different for each person who never had it under communist rule. For some, it meant burgers and Coca-Cola, and for others, it meant acquiring THINGS. For Ivanka, freedom meant being able to travel and see the world. As a tour guide, she has been able to visit many places throughout Europe; however, her dream of traveling to the U.S.A. has not been fulfilled due to the many financial obstacles that prevent her from doing so.
After 1989, many people saved their money to acquire a passport, even if they could never afford to travel. Having a passport was symbolic, and it symbolized freedom—something they never had.
Along our journey to Bratislava, Slovakia, we stopped in Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno. After a walking tour, we had time on our own and happened upon a farmer’s market where the old buildings served as a picturesque backdrop to the beautiful flowers and produce on display.
In the town center, this sculpture of a bullet was a monument to the bloodshed during thirty years of war between Protestants and Catholics. (Would we have wars if there was no religion? John Lennon’s “Imagine” really makes me stop and think every time I hear that song.)