EU public still unsure about Baltic membership

  • 2000-04-27
  • By Peter J. Mladineo
VILNIUS - As support for joining the European Union grows in Lithuania, support for EU enlargement within EU countries is growing too - albeit by dribs and drabs.

The latest semi-annual "Eurobarometer" report shows that support for the 13 candidate countries, Baltic states included, upped a notch, from 42 to 43 percent, between spring 1999 and autumn 1999.

Individually, enlargement received the highest amount of support from Sweden, Denmark and Greece, with 62 percent, 60 percent, and 57 percent of the public there favoring expansion, respectively. The lowest average support came from France, with 34 percent, Austria, with 35 percent, and Germany, with 38 percent.

Among the 15 EU member states, the Baltic states' membership rated somewhere in the middle of the pack of the candidate countries. The report showed 37 percent of the EU public supported Estonia's membership, compared to 38 percent against. Latvia scored 37 percent for, 38 percent against, while Lithuania's stats were 37 percent for and 39 percent against.

The EU candidate country receiving the highest level of support was Malta, with 49 percent for and 27 percent against. The country receiving the lowest level of support was Turkey. Only 30 percent of the respondents were for its membership, while 47 percent were against it.

However, this particular study came with a disclaimer conceding that "public opinion on enlargement has not yet crystallized with many people still opting for the 'don't know' response."

Interestingly, the EU public overwhelmingly supports Norway and Switzerland's acceptance into the EU - despite the fact that both countries have not expressed desires to join.

Henrik Schmiegelow, head of the European Commission delegation to Lithuania, thinks that enlargement attitudes among the EU public are, at this point, mostly a function of geography.

"I think that when you look at the figures they're not at all that surprising. You would expect that countries being close to the region where the enlargement would take place would normally have a sympathetic view towards it. Countries being further away from the population simply don't have a clear perception of the [EU candidate] countries we're talking about. Therefore you'll see a number of the Mediterranean countries being at the bottom," Schmiegelow said.

The fact that Greece was near the top of the list in support for EU countries posed an "interesting deviation," he added. Among Eurocrats, he reports, there is significantly more support for enlargement.

"If you look at all the statements coming out of Brussels, coming out of all the summit meetings, you'll see a really clear sign that they are in favor of the enlargement. Of course, they are in the negotiation process. There are certain interests that each individual member state wishes to protect and similarly there are things that accession countries wish to obtain. That's part of negotiations. But the end is quite clear: It is an enlarged union that we're looking for," Schmiegelow said.

Scandinavian countries, naturally, are the biggest supporters for EU expansion - especially in the Baltic States. "Those are the countries that have natural access to those [Baltic] countries," Schmiegelow said.

Denmark and Sweden represent some of the largest investors in Baltic economies. In Lithuania, Scandinavian investments are dominating the banking, telecommunications, beer, and other industries.

In Austria, where xenophobia is gaining momentum, a fear of attracting migrants from new member states "easily explained" that country's attitude. Schmiegelow also hinted that Germany's low average of support may relate directly to its ambivalence to see Poland admitted to the EU.

Surveys aside, Lithuania has certain high points as a candidate country.

"Business people [in the EU] will certainly be attracted by the relatively high standard of educated labor, good engineering practice at reasonable prices, and also, a tradition in the production of highly technical products within the electronics industry," Schmiegelow said.

Recently, Lithuania has made serious strides for accession. "Lithuania is in an economic slump but the government has shown considerable energy and determination to get the country out of it. They have issued a restructuring policy that is quite impressive in both the electricity and the gas sector," he said.

"The government is also determined to get as far as possible in the privatization of the banking sector, setting energy prices at a more commercial rate, trying to get rid of a number of subsidies that has burdened the budget. So if this kind of policy can be continued then I think that Lithuania will stand a good chance of being in the first batch. Of course it will require any new government to pursue a similar policy."

This implies a possibility of the three Baltic states acceding together, as Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius said at the Baltic Economic Forum earlier this month.

"It's still a possibility. It's certainly a possibility," Schmiegelow said.

Schmiegelow challenges the claim made by more "Euroskeptic" Lithuanians that the EU is only interested in Lithuania as a market for exports.

"I know the statements in this country saying that [European] businesses are only interested in Lithuania as a market for commerce - that they're not interested in the production taking place in this country. I think that that is clearly not the case. First of all Lithuania is a very small market, it's rather a question of attracting sufficient interest to this market," he said.

However, despite criticisms of the EU by Lithuanian populists and general fears about joining, statistics show that support for joining the EU is growing considerably in Lithuania. The Vilmorus public research center reported in April that 65 percent of the population now supported Lithuania's membership in the EU, compared with 56.8 percent last November, before the country started pre-accession talks with Brussels.

Out of those who want Lithuania to join, the largest portion of them, 15.5 percent want Lithuania to join as soon as possible.