EU candidate states gear up for referendums

  • 2002-10-24
  • Jean-Luc Testault

Even before the Irish referendum cleared the way to the European Union, the former communist countries slated to join the EU in 2004 had started to prepare referendums on accession.

The governments in these Central and Eastern European nations want to make sure there are no obstacles in the way of EU membership, a move they see as crucial to improving their economies and linking up with the prosperity of the West.

The problem is that public opinion is not as unequivocally pro-European as many in the West believe.

This is particularly true in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, where many people feel that after casting off a repressive Soviet hegemony, they may be headed for EU control that could also be overbearing.

Public opinion polls in the Czech Republic show 42 percent of the population have reservations about their country's entry into the EU with only 50 percent convinced that accession will be to their advantage.

Governments in EU candidate states, which also include Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, know they must do all they can to convince their people to say yes to joining the EU, much as Dublin did for the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty.

In Poland, the government has set up a "Eurobus" with 12 students aboard who travel throughout the country, particularly to small villages, to explain to Poles what the European Union does.

Meanwhile in August, heads of state of the four so-called Visegrad countries, namely the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, proposed that the former communist states have referendums one after the other, starting with countries favorable to the EU in order to create a snowball affect that would carry along dissenters.

According to this plan, Hungary would vote first as opinion surveys there show that a resounding majority of 72 percent favors joining the EU.

Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy said earlier this month that he would like to hold a referendum on joining the EU on March 15, Hungary's national day celebrating the 1848 revolution against the Habsburg empire.

In Poland, Prime Minister Leszek Miller has proposed May 11 for a referendum.

The parliaments in both countries must make the final decision on a date.

Slovakia is, like Hungary, a country where both politicians and the population are convinced that the EU is their key to improving the economy.

The small Central European state has not yet fixed a date but its negotiator with the EU, Jan Figel, has said the referendum could be in May.

The Czech Republic has not put forth a date as its Parliament must first pass a law authorizing a referendum.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the government has been unable to get the constitution modified to allow for a referendum.

Even the partition of the former Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia was carried out without such a nationwide vote.

In September, the Czech Senate had refused once more to give constitutional approval to hold a referendum, but it did vote a special text that could be used to ask Czechs if they wish to join the EU.

This law is now going before the lower house.

Other countries, such as Slovenia and Estonia, are waiting before deciding on a referendum.

A government spokesman in Ljubljana said Oct. 21 that Slovenia might not hold the vote before autumn 2003.