Jury still out on Estonia's EU approval

  • 2002-03-28
  • Aleksei Gunter

Estonians continue to support European Union membership but lack information about the consequences of accession, according to the Pan-European Eurobarometer survey released last week.

Carried out last October, the survey polled people in 13 candidate countries. Respondents in Romania showed the highest support for the EU.

About 97 percent of respondents would vote "yes" in a membership referendum.

In Estonia the respective number is 59 percent, which is 20 percent lower than the average response level in the rest of the countries polled.

Only in Malta do Euroskeptics outnumber EU supporters.

The good news for EU supporters is that the numbers have been increasing over the last year.

About one-third of Estonians polled think EU membership will have a positive effect on the country, while 14 percent believe it will be negative.

Roughly 40 percent are still undecided.

Pille Vaher, an adviser to the European Commission delegation to Estonia, said Latvia and Estonia had the lowest number of people with positive attitudes toward the EU.

John Kjaer, head of the delegation, said the key was public relations. Those who are against the EU, he believes, are those that don't know enough information about it.

"We have to plan our information campaign so that when the referendum takes place, as many people as possible will be able to make a reasonable choice," said Kjaer.

A recent information meeting held in Estonia March 21 brought together 110 people who are trying to improve the EU's image.

Benedictus Nieuwenhuis, director of the information department of the European Commission's enlargement division, said the commission does not try to argue with people.

"But if people say 'no' to the European Union, they must know why they say so," he said.

EU supporters in Finland have found it far more productive to concentrate on the undecided than try to change the mind of a skeptic.

But Helina Lokotar, director of the EU information center in Tallinn, said the Finnish experience is far more different than the situation in Estonia.

"We have to remember that Finland joined the European Union not just yesterday, and that its economy was much more competitive," said Lokotar.

Nieuwenhuis said Estonians were not alone in being uninformed about the workings of the EU.

"You can easily find people in Great Britain who are sure Canada and New Zealand are either EU membership candidates or have already joined," he said.