POROSZLO, Hungary (Reuters) - More than a million tourists have flocked to the village of Poroszlo in eastern Hungary since 2012, when Europe’s largest freshwater aquarium opened with 6.5 million euros of financing from the European Union.
While Poroszlo’s residents recognise the benefits of EU membership, some of them see Brussels as an external force that imposes all kinds of demands on them — such as how money coming from the bloc should be spent and whether Hungary should accept Muslim immigrants.
Such ambivalent attitudes have been central to the electoral success of nationalist, eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban: Hungarians broadly welcome EU membership and its funding but, like Orban, they still believe Brussels has no right to foist its rules and values on them.
“This ecocentre is splendid, it attracts many tourists and the village can feel this,” said Zsuzsanna Godo, 60, as she left Poroszlo’s supermarket.
The Lake Tisza Ecocentre and its aquarium was largely funded by the EU, with the government and the village itself also contributing. Godo said it had created jobs and the turnover of local shops had increased.
But when asked if EU membership was good for Hungary she said: “No.”
“I don’t see any point as they put limitations on us in many areas. They set conditions ... how the money should be spent ... or there are the migrants: (the EU) try to tell us what to do.”
After more than a million refugees and migrants came to Europe in 2015 fleeing war and poverty, the EU sought to disperse many of the arrivals around the bloc, including to Hungary.
Orban pursued a strident anti-immigration campaign ahead of April elections where he was reelected by a landslide, with many voters in rural Hungary feeling Orban stood up for national interests when he rejected the EU’s migration policies.
According to a 2018 survey by global think-tank Globsec, EU membership has overwhelming support across Central Europe, with 75 percent of Hungarians saying they would vote to stay in the bloc. But it has declined from 79 percent in 2017, while the leave camp increased to 18 percent from 14 percent.
Csaba Toth, director of liberal think tank Republikon Istitute, says while Orban’s campaign was not intended to undermine Hungarians’ pro-EU attitude, it has had side effects.
“If voters are constantly hearing for years in a well-funded campaign that Brussels wants to settle many migrants here, they will believe it ... especially as there was no positive campaign to counter it,” he said.
Hungary has been allocated over 25 billion euros worth of EU funds in the 2014-2020 budget period, according to EU data, making it the third biggest recipient in former communist eastern Europe, behind Poland and Romania.
[Graphic on EU Structural and Investment Funds spending in 2014-2020: tmsnrt.rs/2JqSQ6y]
The funds from the EU, which the country joined in 2004, have contributed to investment and boosted Hungary’s economy, which is expected to grow by 4 percent this year.
However, growth is forecast to slow in coming years, partly as EU funds ebb, Citigroup said in a May 25 note.
“We believe the government’s latest over 4 percent GDP growth forecasts for 2018-2022 seem too optimistic, as we expect growth to slow ... as labour supply and EU funds will be largely utilized,” it said. Citigroup projects 4 percent growth for 2018 and then only 3.1 percent for 2019.
As talks about the EU’s next budget start, Brussels proposed on Tuesday to spend more of the bloc’s money on Italy and other southern states hit by the economic and migration crises, while giving less to eastern Europe.
Hungary has said it would oppose any reduction in EU funds including agricultural subsidies that could hit its sizeable farm sector.
The Lake Tisza Ecocentre has ambitious plans to expand its huge aquariums and leisure park with more EU money to show an even greater array of Hungary’s wildlife, and in 2016 it applied for a further 800 million forints ($2.9 million) of EU funding.
“This is also an EU tender ... if we win, then we will build a new 900-square-meter extension to the building,” director Janos Kiss said proudly.
The centre, which lies on the shore of the tranquil Tisza lake famous for its abundant bird population, has attracted more than 1.2 million visitors since 2012, mostly Hungarians.
The lake is a large artificial reservoir, located on the former flood-plains of the Tisza river, with zigzagging channels, backwaters and a myriad of small reedy islands.
Janos Bornemisza has been mayor of Poroszlo since 1994. He fought for the aquarium for years and says it helped to lengthen the high tourist season, benefiting his village.
“We think in a small village like this we are not directly impacted (by Brussels) ... but indirectly of course we are, as we are interested to know how much EU funds we will receive ... and this makes us feel we are part of the EU and we want to remain so,” he said.
Some in the village share this view, but with reservations.
“We can be grateful to the EU for many things but it also has disadvantages ... for example we have become a dumping ground of the EU as far as foodstuffs are concerned,” said Vince Kocsis, a grey-haired man wiping off sweat as he gets off his bike in the heat. He blames multinational companies for bringing lower quality products to Hungary.
“To some extent we need the EU as we should belong somewhere for the country to get wealthier I think. We used to belong to the Soviet Union, they moved out, and now we have something else,” added Kati, a 63-year-old pensioner, who declined to give her full name.
She says Brussels should not meddle into Hungary’s affairs though.
“We get money but we also give them something no? We must comply (with their conditions).”
Her words echo comments by Orban made in a March 6 speech to businessmen in Budapest when he said that EU funds were not a precondition for the success of the Hungarian economy.
“We must understand that by giving us money they are financing themselves. This is a wise.. system,” Orban said.
“My guiding principle is that it’s not money that we need from Europe. It’s not the Europeans’ money that we need: it’s their markets ... This is why we must stay in the European Union.”
Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Toby Chopra