EU jitters lead to call for ad campaign

  • 2002-11-21
  • J. Michael Lyons

European Union supporters are pressing the government for up to 1 million lats to fund a vote-swaying media campaign ahead of next year's membership referendum.

EU support in Latvia has been consistently below 50 percent since official polling began in 1998. Organizations like the European Integration Bureau say a mass media blitz might be the only way left to persuade Latvian voters to approve membership.

"There has been a lot of discussion about the need to inform the public, but there has been no money behind it," said bureau director Edvards Kusners.

In response, his office has asked the government to set aside 1 million lats (1.6 million euros) from next year's budget to set up a special government office devoted to winning hearts and minds.

Kusners and other non-government organizations, business and government leaders debated Nov. 15 what form the campaign should take during a conference in Riga.

All agreed that it should be government funded but involve pro-EU NGOs and private public relations and advertising firms.

The government approved a similar draft plan in October but Kusners and others are waiting to see how much money will be appropriated to pay for it.

And the clock, they stressed, is ticking.

"We're getting down to the last minute," said Ainars Dimants, president of the European Movement in Latvia.

A date for the referendum, which is required for Latvia to join, has not yet been set, though all agreed it would have to take place by September at the latest.

Former Prime Minister Andris Berzins earlier this year pushed for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to vote on Aug. 23, 2003, the 64th anniversary of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact between Germany and the Soviet Union that put Estonia and Latvia under the Soviet "occupation."

The latest opinion poll in Latvia, conducted in October and released last week, showed 49 percent of those asked would vote in favor of membership, up 3 percent over September. Roughly 35 percent would vote against joining and 15 were undecided.

That's a sharp increase over poll results earlier in the year - 36.3 percent responded in favor of membership in February - but it's still far from comfortable.

"We need at least 60 percent support for Latvia's membership in the EU to be stable," said Dimants.

To get that support the government has so far relied on a soft approach, purposefully avoiding doomsday scenarios that might accompany a "no" vote or any strategy that could be construed as brainwashing.

But Kusners said it had been an uncoordinated approach involving a few people from a couple of ministries, most notably the Agriculture Ministry.

"Now we need more," he said. "We need something well-structured, well-organized and well-funded."

Next year's budget has to be submitted to Parliament by Dec. 27 and would likely be approved by late January.

"There will be funds allocated but the exact amount is still to be determined," said Peteris Vinkelis, a close adviser to Prime Minister Einars Repse.

Vinkelis said the effort to win over Latvia's Euroskeptics should still keep a subtle tone.

Repse traveled to Warsaw last week to meet with leaders from other EU candidate countries and compare notes on support. What he likely found was that most countries already have well-funded information campaigns.

EU support in Slovenia, for example, jumped from a minority to 56 percent last spring after a government-funded information campaign.

After visiting Slovenia in April, Latvia's chief EU negotiator Girts Kesteris said he envied Slovenia's information campaign.

He's not alone among government officials who say it's overdue.

"This campaign should have been launched years ago," said MP Arturs Karins of Repse's New Era party.

The key to a successful referendum could be rural voters, who reacted positively to a small information campaign conducted by the Agriculture Ministry last spring and summer. But despite the brief campaign, many in the countryside are still unconvinced.

"Rural people haven't been properly prepared to be EU members," said Rihards Circenis, a prominent pro-EU farmer from the Valka region.

Rural voters, he stressed, could be the vote that swings the referendum solidly in favor of membership.

The key, he and others said, is to show small farmers and others the positive impact of joining and drown out backlash over things like agricultural subsidies.

"A person with one cow knows he won't be able to go on like that," said the European Movement's Dimants. "But he hasn't been made aware of the alternatives."