• 2000-06-08
Time to wake up and smell the coffee. While politicians lust for membership in NATO, and business people chase membership in the European Union, a new public opinion survey in Estonia shows only a third in favor of joining EU.

For these hopes to come to fruition, the public needs more than reports of apple-polishing diplomats declaring the Baltics over-ready and overdue for membership in the international alliances. A good and necessary start is public debate on the issues where so far there has been very little and few forums to facilitate it. Sure, the EU maintains information offices in the capitals and perhaps one or two large cities, but pamphlet distribution centers won't do the trick.

Public forums can be useful for gaining consensus on national opportunities and direction as well as exposing bureaucrats to criticism. Town meetings on EU, NATO and other national endeavors could afford needed solidarity as well as force politicians to know, if not respond, to the will of the people.

Knowing the thinking of Baltic residents might also cause politicians to take a look in the international looking glass to see if enlargement is a goal abroad. For instance, German Chancellor Gerhard Shroeder in this week's visit to Baltic states did not seem to fall over himself touting Latvia's future membership, understandable as Germany would be picking up a big piece of the tab for EU expansion. At the same time, the U.S. State Department does not see immediate NATO membership for Latvia in its crystal ball, regardless of a lame duck's assurances that Russia would not stand in the way.

Membership in EU needs to be tested in the "robust marketplace of ideas" at home and a reality check on attitudes toward NATO expansion taken abroad, before the Baltic states and other aspiring countries change their constitutions and pump long money into military spending and meeting regulations, cheered on by visiting ambassadors and heads of commercial delegations kissing up to the blarney stone at press conferences. Most of those who declare the Baltics ready and likely to be admitted to the organizations soon do not have a vote.

Ultimately it is the people who will have to decide the EU question by an absolute majority vote in a referendum. Today in Estonia, 34 percent of the population would vote for EU accession, 26 percent against, but 27 percent are undecided. It seems debate on hip pocket issues has gone and stayed missing from town halls, coffee shops, wayside bars and over backyard fences.