Balts rejoice over Irish endorsement

  • 2002-10-24
  • Steven C. Johnson

The Baltic states united in a collective sigh of relief last weekend as Ireland voted to remove what many considered the last barrier to European Union enlargement.

With onlookers here on the edge of their seats, Irish voters nearly a continent away backed the Treaty of Nice that sets the structural framework for stretching Europe's economic and political frontiers to include up to 10 mostly ex-communist countries by 2004.

"The Irish people just made 100 million new friends in Central and Eastern Europe," said Peteris Elferts, an adviser to Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins.

The Oct. 19 referendum was Ireland's second on the treaty, named for the French resort town in which it was signed. Voters narrowly rejected it last year. All EU members had to ratify the treaty, but Ireland was the only country that put it to a referendum.

The first time, voters there feared the treaty would bring a flood of Eastern European immigrants and divert EU structural funds from Ireland, which was among the poorest EU members when it joined in 1973, to newcomers like the Baltics and other ex-communist candidates.

Voters were also concerned about non-enlargement related issues, including the erosion of Irish soverignty and the loss of the country's jealously guarded neutrality.

The treaty also governs setting up a European rapid reaction force and changes voting procedures and representation at the EU's Council of Ministers, mostly in favor of larger countries.

The first "no" vote shocked EU leaders and candidate countries. To many in the Baltics, it appeared Ireland, which was transformed from a poor and backward former British province into one of Europe's most robust economies with the help of EU structural aid, was ready to deny them the same opportunity.

It took an aggressive advertising campaign from the Irish government aimed at dispelling fears and reminding voters not to derail enlargement to get a "yes" this time. Some 63 percent of voters backed the treaty in the weekend referendum.

"We are glad the Irish approved the treaty and made enlargement possible," said Estonian Foreign Minister Kristina Ojuland. "Estonia has always looked at Ireland as a country that has taken advantage of EU membership with great success."

A second rejection would have killed the treaty and indefinitely delayed enlargement.

"The result was very positive because it removes the last obstacle to enlargement," said Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzins. "And it's also important because people here now see that even a small country in the EU can influence decisions."

Indeed, opinion polls suggest citizens in the tiny Baltic states, whose combined population is roughly 7.5 million, are among the most Euroskeptic among all candidate countries.

A poll conducted this month by Latvia's European Integration Bureau found just 46.2 percent of respondents in favor of joining.

A June poll in Estonia found just 44 percent of respondents in favor of joining, but an additional 14 percent said they hadn't made up their minds.

In Hungary, support regularly exceeds 70 percent.

European Integration Bureau director Edvards Kusners said the trend is partly connected to fear of losing the sovereignty Balts have struggled for so long to take back from the Soviet Union.

For others, it's a genuine concern for local businesses and farmers who many fear won't be able to compete against their wealthier and better subsidized counterparts.

"There's really quite a mixture of feelings related to the EU," he said. "But once we finish negotiations, we can go to society and say that we've worked hard to be pretty protective of Latvian interests. We expect to really flood society with information."

Until now, the governments in all three countries have been criticized for not properly explaining the costs and benefits of membership to citizens.

"I'm all for joinig the EU, but not at any price," said Dainis Ivans, a Social Democrat leader and Riga City Council deputy. "There are issues to discuss, but the government does not discuss any of them properly with the public. Everything is decided in negotiations between bureaucrats."

It was a similar information vacuum to which Irish voters reacted last year, said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Anatanas Valionis.

"The problem with the first referendum was that there was not enough preparation for it and too many questions," he said. "This time, these mistakes were not repeated."

The Batlics will all stage referendums of their own next year on joining the EU. In the case of Latvia, it will be a new government, likely to be led by ex-central banker Einars Repse and staffed almost entirely by political novices, that must convince citizens to vote "yes."

President Vaira Vike-Freiberga has said committment to joining the EU will be among the most important factors she considers when nominating a candidate to head that government when the country's new Parliament convenes on Nov. 5.

"As the Irish example shows, the role of the government in informing society is very important, and the president hopes the new government will tkae this role seriously," said presidential spokeswoman Aiva Rozenberga. "Whoever the president nominates as prime minister will have to be a strong supporter of Europe and the EU."

Three of the four parties expected to comprise the next government were not represented in the outgoing Parlimaent, and many of the proposed ministers are newcomers to Parliaments.

"In their programs, all the parties say they back the EU, and the only way we can join is through a referendum," said Berzins. "I hope they will take this very seriously."