All the potential new members will conduct a referendum on accession. Depending on the country, the referenda are either more or less “public opinion surveys” or binding on parliament. In most cases, the citizens of these countries see EU membership in a positive light.
The approval of the accession treaty by the European Parliament and its signing in Athens on April 16, 2003 paved the way for the ratification process in the 15 member states and the ten accession countries. All the potential new members have pledged to conduct public referenda. However, the referenda carry different weight depending on the country in question. In some, they are considered strictly as “public opinion surveys”, whereas in others they are binding on parliament or even take the place of a parliamentary vote (see table on following page).
In most cases, the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe see EU membership in a positive light. On average, only about 20% are against accession, whereas 52% express their support. Despite this generally positive picture, surveys often mirror concerns about what role these – for the most part – small countries will be able to play in the EU-25. There is a fear that they will “fade away” amidst the big, longstanding member states and lose a large measure of their recently gained sovereignty. The critical, inappropriate comments by France’s President Jacques Chirac in connection with the Iraq conflict have confirmed these fears. This was grist to the mill of the euro-sceptics in the accession countries.
The five countries from Central Europe – Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia – welcome the prospect of EU membership. In this group, roughly 64% of the population on average is in favour of enlargement, while the opposing side has little support (15%).
These polls have been confirmed by the results of the first referenda which have sent positive signals for those to follow in other countries. Slovenia held its binding referendum on March 23. Nearly 90% of the electorate there decided in favour of membership (at the same time 66% voted to join NATO). In Hungary a large majority voted (83% of the voters) in favour of EU membership on April 12. However, the turnout of roughly 46% was below what was expected, and below the required minimum turnout of 50%. With the approval of more than 2 m of those entitled to vote, though, the result is valid. The first enlargement referendum took place in Malta back on March 8. In the small island state with a turnout of 91%, nearly 54% of the voters cast their ballot in favour of EU membership. With the re-election of Malta’s ruling party on April 12, the country’s future as a member of the EU is finally secured.
In the Czech Republic, one factor of uncertainty has disappeared with the vote of confidence in the government of Vladimir Spidla. By contrast, Poland has seen an increase in political uncertainty in the run-up to
the referendum owing to the collapse of the ruling coalition. Considerably more than half of all Poles still favour EU accession. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that the Peasant Party, having been ousted from the government, might switch to the opponents’ camp and launch a campaign against accession. This could reinforce sentiment against membership especially among the rural population and jeopardise the outcome of the referendum. The discontent over the economic situation and the government’s record could rub off on the attitude towards EU accession – this would give rise to a scenario similar to the first negative referendum on the Nice Treaty in Ireland.
However, a “no” vote would not generally endanger the ratification process – unlike in Ireland – but instead “only” put a question mark over the timeframe of Poland’s entry. Given the fact that the Peasant Party itself played an active part in the accession negotiations and would scarcely want to assume responsibility for a “no” vote, such a turn of events seems very unlikely. It is more dubious whether the 50% turnout necessary for the referendum will be attained, for the referendum is only valid if m ore than half of the electorate participates. If 50% votes in favour of accession, the plebiscite is binding for parliament. If no quorum is achieved, the parliamentary vote will have to be won by constitutional majority (two-thirds). If a parliamentary vote becomes necessary, though, the ruling coalition is likely to be supported by much of the centrist opposition, which brings a two-thirds majority within reach. However, the draft law governing the electoral proceedings has not been passed yet.
The people of the three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – are more sceptical about EU accession. There, the approval rating runs to only about 46%, with no less than 26% rejecting the proposal. Support is particularly low in Estonia. In these countries, the gap separating the public at large from the political elites – the latter are in favour of accession – is especially pronounced. The date for a referendum in Cyprus remains open.
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