Gearing up for hard sell on EU membership

  • 2002-12-19
  • Steven C. Johnson

It took a decade of painful reform and years of tough negotiations for the Baltic states to seal deals to join the European Union, but the biggest challenge may lie ahead as leaders try to persuade a skeptical public of the merits of membership.

The EU agreed at its year-end summit last week to pay 40.8 billion euros in subsidies to 10 mostly ex-communist countries, clearing the way for its largest expansion ever.

But before they can join in May 2004, voters in every candidate country must support membership in a referendum. Opinion polls suggest that securing a "yes" vote won't be easy.

"I think we can sell people on this, but it's going to take some hard work," said Andris Kesteris, Latvia's chief EU negotiator.

Lithuania is considering a spring referendum. Estonia and Latvia will follow with votes in September.

Support outweighs opposition in all three countries, but the margin in polls has been thin, and supporters are often fewer than 50 percent. The most recent survey in Latvia found just 49 percent in favor, 36 percent opposed.

A November poll in Estonia saw support surge to 57 percent - an all-time high - but one month earlier the same polling company found just 45 percent in favor, prompting Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland to warn recently that the possibility of a "no" vote "cannot be excluded."

But so far anti-EU sentiment, while strongly felt by some, has been disorganized and diffuse, with few articulate leaders to spearhead "no" campaigns.

Most have attempted to paint the EU as a sinister, sovereignty-sapping bureaucracy.

Estonian academic Uno Silberg has called it a "Soviet Union in disguise" that will force the country to deliberalize its progressive economic policies, including a zero-percent corporate income tax.Some skeptics fear unemployment as small businesses will be forced to either invest heavily to meet EU safety and other standards or close. Others say farmers will be ruined by restrictive production quotas and far smaller subsidies than those of their counterparts in current member states.

Most simply cringe at being swallowed by a massive organization dominated by larger countries.

Kesteris said Baltic attitudes had a lot to do with history. "We have bitter memories of the Soviet past. Psychologically, it's harder for us than for most to join a big union, and that makes it tough to explain the benefits."

To win over the skeptics, Baltic governments are planning to spend millions of euros on aggressive advertising campaigns.

Latvia has discussed spending up to 1 million lats (1.6 million euros) on an advertising blitz next year and an additional 1 million to organize a referendum.

Estonia has set aside 8 million kroons (510,000 euros) and will organize specific campaigns aimed at businessmen, pensioners and students.

"We would like the campaign to be especially active in the regions, where access to EU-related information is not as good," said Pille Vaher, an adviser at the EU's representative office in Tallinn.

In many cases, officials say it is simply a matter of helping voters connect the dots between the EU and a whole set of practical improvements the membership helps fund.

Estonia, for instance, received nearly 5.2 billion kroons of aid from the EU between 1991 and 2001, according to the Ministry of Finance.

Along with Latvia and Lithuania, it will be eligible for billions more after membership while GDP per capita remains below 75 percent of the EU average.

"Unfortunately, the government just put up the signs at these new bridges and roads explaining that repairs were done with EU money," said Toomas Ilves, a former Estonian foreign minister. "We should be doing better than that."

In Lithuania, the government looks to have the easiest task. Polls show voters are the most pro-EU of the Balts, and after seeing their leaders clink champagne glasses at the Copenhagen summit with Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair, support for joining hit an all-time high of 68 percent in a poll released this week.

"Lithuanians view it not as a new member joining but as a European country returning to a family of nations to which we've always belonged," said Gintautas Vasiulis, of the Foreign Ministry's European integration department."

And if Lithuanians go to the polls first next spring, Estonians and Latvians reason a "yes" vote could trigger a domino effect of support.

"It would probably be viewed as reasonable in that case not to break up the common Baltic market," said Eduards Kusners, who heads Latvia's state-run European Integration Bureau.

Earlier plans to boost pro-EU sentiment by staging simultaneous referendums in all three countries appear to have been abandoned.

Ilves called a discarded proposal to hold a vote on Aug. 23, the anniversary of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that divided Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, "a stupid example of this ersatz symbolism so beloved by Baltic politicians.

"The past is past," he said. "Why dredge it up?"

Anti-EU forces intend to amplify their own message in the months ahead by using leaflets, Web sites and door-to-door campaigns to get the message out.

Their biggest problem remains money. Few "no" campaigners expect the Baltic governments to agree to their request for equal funding.

"It's hard to overestimate the importance of funding, but we think the government may be underestimating people's intelligence, so I think there's still a chance to win," said Normunds Grostins, head of the Riga-based anti-EU Movement for Independence.

So far, Latvia is the only Baltic country that has drafted a "Plan B." If voters reject the EU, a new referendum would be planned for 2006 concurrently with the country's parliamentary election.

But missing the boat in 2004 means waiting until at least 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria are slated to join, and being shut out of key EU decisions.

"It is clearly in the countries' advantage to join in 2004, because they will participate in settling the union's 2007-2013 finances," said Andrew Rasbash, EU ambassador to Latvia. "It makes sense to get in during that first round."