Lithuanians turn into nation of Euro-enthusiasts

  • 2000-12-14
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The number of Lithuanians who support their country's membership in the European Union is growing, reports the latest survey conducted by the Vilmorus public opinion research center.

Valdas Gaidys, director of Vilmorus, says that the internal political situation, the privatization process and issues surrounding the Ignalina nuclear plant have influenced the attitude of Lithuanians toward future EU membership. The number of EU enthusiasts has consistently grown in recent months.

A whopping 76.5 percent of respondents approved of EU membership in the month of November (in October it was 67.9 percent). Currently, only 9.7 percent of the Lithuanian population is against membership, with 13.7 percent of the respondents undecided about the subject.

"The largest percentage of Euro-enthusiasts was recorded three years ago, when the EU was considered the ideal for becoming a happy country. People didn't know much about the reforms necessary for joining the EU," Gaidys said.

Vilmorus noted the largest growth of Euro-skepticism took place in November 1999.

Gaidys mentioned several factors which had an influence on this skepticism. The public reaction to the privatization of the Mazeikiu Nafta oil refinery, the import-export offshore terminal and pipeline, was negative. The deal got bad media. Lithuanians started thinking negatively not just about U.S. Williams, which became the operator of Mazeikiu, but also about the "West" in general in the fall of 1999.

The Lithuanian public also reacted negatively to promises made by Lithuanian authorities to the European Commission to close the Ignalina nuclear station. EC pressure provoked a defensive reaction.

In just over one year, Lithuanians' attitude to the EU has changed significantly, says Gaidys. The story of Williams and Ignalina has been forgotten and there's much more information available about the EU. "Lithuanians have the same level of knowledge about the EU as people in England and Germany. It doesn't mean that this level is very high, but Lithuanians know more than a year ago," Gaidys said.

The support of popular political leaders had a large influence on the growth of Euro-enthusiasm. "During this year's parliamentary election campaign, the most popular political leaders - Rolandas Paksas, Arturas Paulauskas, Algirdas Brazauskas -- spoke in favor of the country's EU membership," Gaidys said. He added it had an influence on the growth of Euro-enthusiasm even in small towns and rural areas, which were formerly considered strongholds of Euro-skepticism.

Gaidys described Euro-skeptics as "losers." He said, "The average Euro-skeptic doesn't know how to work with a computer, doesn't speak English and is about 50 years old. These people harbor doubts the EU will have any need of them."

Some 49.4 percent of respondents said they would vote in favor of EU membership in a referendum if it were held right now, while 22.3 percent would vote against it. "People think Lithuania should prepare its economy for competition within the EU," said Gaidys.

Half of those questioned said that Lithuania should be firm in its entry negotiations with the EU, while only 10 percent said that Lithuania should make compromises for admission into the EU.