East-Central Europe on the Eve of EU Enlargement
Paper for the 1998 ISA Convention (Minneapolis MN, USA)
1. Integration and systemic changes
Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic may acquire full EU membership within some years. Their recent efforts on the way from association to accession are aimed at applying integration measures pertaining to their economic and social performance, policy, regulation and institutions. I thought it would be proper to present here a sketchy review of some similarities and some particulars of their foreign economy reorientation and internal transformation. Some comparative data are also appended to this text. The first data group on the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (I) consists of average long-term indicators and their annual change for the last couple of years. The second one (II) covers an intermediate period of 1991-1994, the third (III) – 1995. (II. and III. with data on Slovakia.)
The recent westward integration drive of the subregion is a logical corollary of systemic changes which began back in 1989. By this transition the nations in question started to acquire an integration compatibility with their Euro-atlantic partners. There are two levels of integration compatibility. The first one consists of steps that - from a general economic rationality viewpoint – long ago should have been introduced. The second level contains measures pertaining more specifically to EU regulations.
Steps toward the EU assume a respective drive for enlargement that was discussed on the Intergovernmental Conference.  Still after the Amsterdam summit in many respects a decisive attitude is yet to be adopted, but it is definitely acknowledged that the three nations are prepared for beginning talks about their EU accession. Enlargement will involve medium-term costs and lasting benefits both for the European Union EU and its new members, but the comparative weakness of the latter calls for EU assistance. As a matter of fact the recent fifth expansion deals with a zone of small and medium sized countries with less advanced economies than the EU average. Previous expansions also included some similar nations, but the recent one is the first to deal with several former East-block states. (German reunification was a special case.) Because of its scope and its diversity, it has to be preceded by more important changes than the previous ones.
In addition to and in connection with the deepening of the Union, EU will have to address the implications of the increased number of members. Still more flexibility is needed so as to give enough time to the new member states to attain integration conditions gradually. The actual accession should take place only in sequences. Block treatment is excluded in respect of the above named three countries either. Their background and process of social transformation is characterized by some general as well as special features. That calls for some historical reviews.
As a common historic feature, the three nations in question have been demonstrating their socio-cultural affinity with the West for many centuries. Early in this millennium, or in Dante’s time in spite of some Eastern-type phenomena they gradually diverged from the developmental models existing just across the divide line between civilizations, in the Byzantine-orthodox and the Islamic areas. This distinction was preserved even afterwards, when these countries have developed also differences from the West in their patterns of social action, economy, political systems and the way of life. After 1948 they fell under Soviet domination and, later, Soviet implosion was a first condition and general background of their transition.
Another resemblance pertains to the present state of affairs. Social transformation has attained a crucial point of no return, even if the new system has not fully developed yet. The situation is far from being an ideal one, but democracy is stabilized, market economy is operating. There is continuity in legality, owing to which the process of transition is characterized by relative peace and stability. Economic and political freedom were won by democratic elections and in that sense the end of the old regime was much better than its start.
Rule of law, real separation of powers, individual freedom, human rights and property rights have already been established. They are at the root of the very existence, and meaning of any present and future governments, not excluding ones assuming a socialist tinge. Political conflicts are being fought through in parliamentary forms at the same time when, in some Balkan states changes have included explosion of violence and ethnic-religious hatred left a whole area with still smoldering ruins of social, economical and environmental disasters. In Central Europe the former Czech and Slovak Federation has disintegrated due to national differences but the process was smooth. In these circumstances a recent high degree of ethnic homogeneity, of no value in itself, has been an important asset of the three Central European countries on the eve of their EU membership.
The Euro-Atlantic and global implications of changes are demonstrated, inter alia, by the operation of non-European multinationals in the subregion, OECD membership of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, and the invitation extended to these countries to adhere to the North-Atlantic defense community. There are also trans-systemic (not transition-specific) corellative links and similarities of this area with the rest of Europe: the evolving digitalization of life or the restriction of growth of expenditures on welfare are international attributes of a global transformation process. The same is true concerning the fight against drug abuse, terrorism, money laundering, nuclear trade, etc.
Economic conditions are the main concern both from the viewpoint of transformation and integration compatibility. Macro-economic situation was by no means attractive over the 90s. The firms of the subregion lost from one day to another about two thirds of their East-European trading partners and markets for products, that could not be sold elsewhere. Equally the supply of commodities and raw materials from these markets dried up . The impact of war in former Yugoslavia was anything but beneficial, (especially for Hungary bordering with the territory of the tumultuous Southern Slavic area).
In light of these events, a degree of versatility of the three nations’ economic-cultural potential was demonstrated by their transition achievements. Denationalization of most assets was essential for the economic transformation. Industrial restructuring, evolving services, rising productivity are salient indicators of change. Growth is resumed. There have emerged millions of small entrepreneurs to become a most important accelerating factor of development. Large international companies, even criticised for some negative consequences, greatly contributed to capital imports and economic growth. There was a considerable shift (reorientation) of foreign trade to Western Europe. The latter now accounts for about 2/3-3/4 of exports. The export boom didn’t last for long and the terms of trade worsened but an actual trade integration into Europe was completed in two years. An attached chart (Chart 1.) on composition of trade by partner covers not only the three nations in question but also other transition economies. The real exchange rates of the three countries and Russia – influencing their trade performance – are reflected in Chart 2. Medium to long-term financial flows of all countries in transition are presented in Chart 3. Separate studies should be devoted to the latter, which is an increasingly influential factor of transitional economies.
Preparing for full membership goes hand in hand with a profound economic and social change i.e. a process which is in short and medium term jeopardizing stability. Prospective EU members have been receiving some financial transfers from the Community. As associates they have been getting PHARE benefits that, coordinated with other assistance, IMF stand-by loans, World Bank benefits, EBRD investments are helping defray a part of transition costs and making a substantial contribution to the preparation of integration conditions. In spite of this the main onus of changes is born by the three countries themselves. An unbearable burden would endanger not only their economic and political stability, but the whole process of peaceful European development. EU assistance is limited but there are other ways and means to avoid a part of transformation costs. In accordance with the above mentioned temporal-historical approach, instead of giving money EU may give time to its new members. I mean graduality. Of course, the period of necessary changes may not and should not be stretched along for an infinite number of years. And EU expenditures may not be excluded from the scenario. Just the rule must be applied: if EU is unable to assist in changes exceeding national potential, it should tolerate a more moderate speed of integration.
2. Some national particulars
At the beginning of changes, in 1990, the GDP per capita indicator, as compared to the Austrian level, was 30.4 for Poland, 37.8 for Hungary, and 50.4 for the Czech (and Slovak) Republic [ 2, p. 5.], which was an evidence of differences in their level of economic development. This gap remained in relation to Austria. A special feature of Poland was that a profound and lasting crisis beginning in the late 70s preceded the systemic changes. In the other two countries the recession came later, but to reduce it to a “transformational crisis” (and nothing more ) would be a simplification. A distinct feature of Hungary is a model of its society historically different of the Soviet Communism as a result of substantial reforms. With the introduction of a new economic mechanism in 1968 the economy reached a degree of adaptability to domestic needs and international markets. The reforms, even if they were partly reversed and failed to reach a critical mass, indeed helped to modernize and open the economy. In the 1980s the reforms already were unable to mitigate the decrease of the economic performance
Some peculiarities of the three countries stemmed from the respective extent of their previous openness. Their “endowment” of international indebtedness was highly different. The Czech Republic boasting of the best economic indicators at the beginning of the transition was much less indebted than the other two nations. Poland had more debt and needed relief yet in the 80sThe per capita indebtedness was the highest in Hungary, but the country managed to avoid rescheduling.
The privatization process was also different. In the Czech Republic large domestic financial institutions with the majority votes in the hands of state agencies or their holdings were the main agents of acquisition. The latter was mediated by coupon privatization while private capital was the main actor of privatization in Hungary.
Decisive privatization moves and the business environment were the main two factors due to which Hungary attracted a fairly good share of working capital imports, per capita the highest in the subregion. The country could not avoid some ill-conceived and ill-administered economic measures. Some data on Poland’s performance in this field are appended. They cover inflow of foreign capital and its sectoral structure.
Despite Hungary’s impressive privatisation record and lead in attracting investment GDP rose at an estimated 2 per cent in 1995, (at about 1% in the following year) well below the 5-7 % in Poland and the Czech Republic. Inflation was slightly over 20 % in Poland and below 10 %. in the Czech Republic. The Hungarian rate was 28.2 % in 1995 [ 14 ] and remained high in 1996. More specifically some aspects of this nation’s experience will be dealt with in the next section.
3. The Hungarian experience
Already in 1990 major trade liberalization moves were made in conformity with WTO ( then GATT ) rules on abolition of non-tariff restrictions. A newly introduced set of laws was aimed at harmonizing the Hungarian system with international norms. Some of the most important acts of economic legislation were to guarantee the investments against nationalization and enable foreign companies to repatriate in convertible currencies their capital and profits. This legislative direction was continued over the nineties. 
As far as bad news are concerned, the GDP was decreasing for 5 years. Ill-conceived policies have much contributed to the worsening of the situation at least in the fields of agriculture, public finances and indebtedness that went on growing, up to 1996.
In 1991-1992 Hungarian macro-policy could still boast of some stability improvements and in this respect the nation was indeed doing relatively well in comparison with some of its neighborhood. It was during this period that the bulk of foreign trade shifted to Western Europe. [4, 1992,7.] International current accounts were balanced, inflow of foreign working capital was continuous.
But GDP decreased by 20% from 1989 to 1992, industrial output decreased by about 1\4 and the rate of unemployment reached about 13% [5, March 1992]. In 1991 inflation and interest rates reached more than 35%, and the maximum tax rate on personal income was 50%. In connection with a slower rise of consumer prices (at about 23%) in 1992 the tax ceiling was 40% and nominal interest rates were also lowered. But state deficit was the highest ever recorded in Hungary. Pending on the methodology of calculation it was estimated at 6-8 percents of the GDP. [4, 1992, N 12 ] As all indicators of output worsened, money supply increased in 1992 by 25% . While the excess money was supplied to the government the access of the business sphere to credits was restricted . More than 63% of the GDP was concentrated in various funds of the central government, state social security and municipal authorities . The government failed to begin reforms in this field. Still for five more years this indicator remained high.
The speed of liberalization was somewhat exaggerated in view of the actual level of development of the country while the depreciation of the Hungarian currency was insufficient.
There were some signs of economic recovery, partly at the expense of economic equilibrium in 1993. The balance of payments drastically worsened in 1993 to attain a deficit about$ 3.5 Bn. That was partly a result of decreasing agricultural production and exports. There remained also serious imbalances in the state budget [ 7, N 4.]. Inflation was checked at 22.5 % as compared with the previous year’s 23 %.
Along with transition processes a profound degradation in average living standards was underway. The fact itself was tolerated conditionally by the public only within a perspective of economic growth in not too distant future. A change of administration was to take place about the middle of 1994. Data for the first half of 1994 showed continuing growth and continuing disequilibrium. [ 8 ] For the first 5 months on the base of the same period of 1993 industrial output volume reached 108 , investments, 150. Gross international debt was increasing and so was state budget deficit. These imbalances did not stop under the new government. Disequilibrium culminated at the end of 1994. The deficit of the balance of payments amounted to about $ US 4 Bn and the deficit of the state budget to HUF 340 Bn. The same trends continued in the first quarter of 1995. They were stopped as a result of sweeping austerity measures and a sharp turn in the economic policy of the government [ 9 ].
The quantitative stabilisation targets included a cut in the balance of payments deficit to $ US 2.5 Bn. ( by 1.5 Bn. ), a cut of the state budget deficit to HUF 200 Bn. ( by 140 Bn. ), a cut in the number of state employees by 15 %. and aimed at a 27% rate of inflation. [ 10 ] Stabilization tools included currency depreciation of 9% at once and continuing on a sliding scale (appr. 15% on a yearly base.)
A temporary 8% import tariff supplement was introduced. Car import tax increased and reserve requirements for banks were raised. Credit demand of the total public sector was to be limited to the extent that could be covered mostly by household savings.
Comparative data on 1994 and 1995 [ 12 ] showed that in result of austerity measures while in 1994 export sales reached 83% of the 1985 level, in 1995 they reached 99.3%, i.e. practically equalled the latter. But employment went on shrinking. On the base of 1990, from 1994 to 1995, consumer prices changed from 241.6 to 309.7. State deficit was reduced by about 40% in 1995. A major foreign capital influx came in December 1995. Net debt at the end of 1995 amounted to $ US 16.8 Bn. of which the state debt was only 11 Bn. [ 13 ].
In 1995 reducing the general government budget deficit was given high priority in the economic strategy of the government. A reduction in real wages (appr. 12 %) was contended by the government to have contributed into income reallocation to savings and improvement of competitiveness of Hungarian products. But the reduction of real wages was exaggerated, it hindered growth and collecting more state revenues. The ratio of net external debt to foreign currency revenues was indeed reduced. A combination of high state debt, high interest rates and inflation, as well as high taxes have depressed economic growth. It may be added, that a major decline in the public sector deficit was up to the end of 1996 hindered by growing interest liabilities of the state budget. There remained a need for substantial narrowing of state benefits. While Hungary’s GDP per capita was a fifth of the OECD average, the share of GDP it spent on welfare was 1.4 times higher [ 14 ]. Around a third of state spending was channelled through the countrywide pension and health funds and central government had to finance their deficits [ 15 ].
In 1996 the stabilisation policy was sustained, large foreign capital inflows came, but the economic growth was marginal, about 1 %. Inflation was slower than in 1995, but remained at a high, 23,6% level. The management of the pension and health care funds remained unefficient. A fundamental reform of pension system was enacted in 1997. Indicators of a substantial growth recovery in 1997 are attached to this text as a last-minute update.
A whole system of tools is necessary to apply so that economic growth gradually accelerate and reach the annual EU countries’ average. Hungarian minuses in this respect were concentrated in earlier years when changes were achieved at the expense of negative growth, increasing unemployment and monetary disequilibria. Now there exist some achievements in restructuring, stabilisation, privatization and marketisation. These factors are contributing to achieving the economic conditions for EU membership.
Summing up, it has to be recognised that integration is not only to provide new prospects but also require different patterns of behavior from all the business and public actors. It comprises a gradual advancement from low competitiveness and poor international performance to a developed market economy.
By way of just mentioning the following problems may be enumerated.
Full EU membership requires the adoption of some more harmonisation changes in addition to those implemented already.
The issue of preferences in agricultural market accession is very complicated. Even the possibility of social unrest is present in some regions in this sector.
Some indicators of inflation and deficit of current account exceed the EU Maastricht threshold and the three nations are not yet able to lastingly abide all these requirements.
Monetary equilibrium may be sustained neither as a simple result of decision-making, nor as a pure consequence of self-clearing market workings, but rather as a trend stemming from the interaction of business with monetary policy. Within some years the countries have to achieve full liberalization of capital movements.
1. Commission Opinion. Reinforcing political union and preparing for enlargement. Brussels, February 1996
2. Comparaison internationale des produits intérieurs bruts en Europe 1990. Nations Unies, New York et Geneve, 1995. p 5.
3 Hungarian Rules of Law in Force (HRLF), 1992-1996
4. Monthly Bulletin of Statistics (Statisztikai Havi Közlemények.) Központi Statisztikai Hivatal. 1992.
5. National Bank of Hungary. Monthly Reports, 1992.
6. Minister of Finances. Report to the Parliament, August, 27, 1991.
7. Monthly Reports of the National Bank of Hungary ( Magyar Nemzeti Bank Havi Jelentések) 1994
8. MTI Press Release (MTI Hirek) 04/26/94 and 05/11/94
9. Government decree 1023/1995, Magyar Közlöny, 22 March 1995
10. Népszabadság, 16 March 1995
11. Napi Gazdaság, 16 March 1995
12. Monthly Bulletin of Statistics (Statisztikai Havi Közlemények) 1996/1. Központi Statisztikai Hivatal.
13. Népszabadság, March 22, 1996
14. Financial Times, March 12, 1996
15. Social and Labor Market Policies in Hungary, OECD, 1995