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Understanding enlargement

  • 2001-11-29
  • Ilze Arklina
Popular support toward European Union accession is increasing step-by-step in the Baltic countries. However, more effort is needed on both sides to understand the process, which must and will go ahead.

According to the latest survey in Estonia, held in August, 54 percent of citizens support the idea of joining the EU, while 39 percent are against it. This attitude has changed considerably since the spring, when less than 40 percent of Estonian citizens supported accession.

Support in Estonia for EU membership will probably increase further now that rurally-minded Arnold Ruutel has been elected president. He has pledged to convey.

In Lithuania, 52.5 percent of people now support EU accession, and 21.6 percent are against. In Latvia, only 42.7 percent are for joining the EU, but that's an increase from only 37.6 percent support in May.

And 55 percent of Latvian citizens eligible to vote - not including many of Latvia's large Russian-speaking minority - would support their country's course to EU membership, bringing this figure in line with Estonia.

It's worth noting that rural residents in Latvia are more positive toward the EU, with 61.9 percent supporting the move.

Constant flux

Surveys like these show that the opinions of Balts toward the EU are continuously in a state of flux. The decline in support in the spring can be explained by negative news about the EU: stories on mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease, growing opposition to EU enlargement among member states, faltering enlargement negotiations, and widespread myths circulating on the impact of joining the EU.

Studies show that Estonians - and this can be related to Latvians and Lithuanians as well - tend to perceive the EU as something "strange" and "foreign" threatening their national identity and sovereignty.

Therefore they often relate themselves to it as a periphery to a metropolis, seeking its approval on the one hand, and perceiving it as a subordinating and alien institution on the other.

Although even EU opponents understand the pragmatic benefits membership would bring, they still feel a certain emotional remoteness toward the issue.

One of the most common stereotypes in the Latvian countryside is, "We've just left one union, why do we have to jump into another?" Or, "The EU will destroy our national identity and agriculture."

Surveys indicate that the more people know about the European Union, the more they agree their country would benefit from membership.

An intense and focused debate in combination with an improvement in expert information that has been provided about the positive economic aspects of joining the EU are already playing a key role in the shift of public opinion to a more positive direction.

Furthermore, the recently begun SAPARD program of subsidies has contributed to the overall advance in the number of EU supporters.

This fall, Estonia was in fact the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to receive a SAPARD payment. A farmer in southeastern Estonia got a grant to pay for a new grain harvester.

Big responsibility

The media have a crucial role in opinion forming. In Latvia, for example, 71.6 percent of people questioned in a recent survey got their information on the EU from television, 51.2 percent from the radio and 47.7 percent from the national press. And they want to continue being informed in that way.

In Latvia, belief in the trinity of most trustworthy institutions of radio, church and TV is high, while state institutions have very negative ratings.

Some media hold the march westwards in higher esteem than others. Diena, the only newspaper in Latvia providing consistent information on EU accession, has this goal in its mission statement, among others: "Latvia has to be an independent state. Participation in NATO and the EU will strengthen Latvia's independence."

Latvia leads Estonia and Lithuania in the number of journalists accredited in Brussels, with correspondents from Latvian state television and the largest Latvian daily Diena working full-time. A correspondent from Estonian radio and two part-time Estonian freelance journalists are working in Brussels. Lithuania so far has no EU correspondent accredited there.

The role of the press is to explain EU enlargement in detailed, individual cases easy for people to understand, to demonstrate how every individual will benefit from accession.

To convey a positive message about EU accession to the media in general, more effort is needed. As in any free market economy, the media no longer have an obligation to serve the state. So, if the state says the EU is good, it will not automatically mean the free press will swallow the message.

And as journalists by their very nature are more critical than positive toward various processes, including those in the EU itself, relying on their conscience may turn out to be the wrong bet.

There's a role for communicators to jump in and help the media and the public understand the benefits of enlargement. Particular attention needs to be devoted to young people, as they will be the ones to benefit from accession the most.