Less than half of Latvians support EU membership

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Could Latvia spoil this year’s unbroken string of successful European Union referendums?

Although this is unlikely, judging by the
experience of the six Central and Eastern European countries that
have already held their membership referendums, some Latvians are
concerned by the results of a recent opinion survey. Released by
pollster Latvijas Fakti on 30 July, the poll showed a drop in
support for EU membership to 49.6 percent, compared with 57 percent
in June.

Opposition to membership gained substantially,
rising from 24 percent to 34 percent.

Some politicians and observers blame the lack of
enthusiasm for the EU on a simplistic and one-sided information
campaign. Similar complaints from both pro- and anti-EU groups have
been heard throughout the region this year.

Political analyst Artis Pabriks said that
Latvians’ support for membership has always fluctuated. In fact,
surveys in March recorded only 50 percent support.

Janis Sils, head of the “No EU” group, said the
“clumsy” information campaign was actually helping push voters into
the “no” camp. He charged that the 1.6-million-euro effort, which
got under way two months ago, was not objective and relied on vague
slogans instead of offering useful information.

The head of the information drive, former
Culture Minister Ramona Umblija, said there were no grounds for
alarm, as the most intensive phase of the campaign was yet to
begin.

According to Latvia’s unusual referendum law,
the vote could succeed or fail on the opinion of less than 14
percent of the electorate. The amended constitution, approved by
parliament in May, states that in order for a referendum to be
valid, the total number of voters casting ballots must be at least
half the number that took part in the previous election. Because
995,085 of the electorate of 1,797,487 took part in the last
parliamentary election, just 497,543 voters will need to cast
ballots on 20 September to validate the referendum. The outcome
will be decided by a simple majority.

Latvijas Fakti director Aigars Freimanis told
the LETA news agency that the latest poll reflects a concern among
certain social and professional groups, such as retired people and
medical personnel, “that the government’s possible decisions
[following EU membership] will not correspond to promises and
expectations.”

Maris Riekstins, state secretary in the Foreign
Ministry, told the BNS news agency on 31 July that the negative
attitude toward the EU may reflect dissatisfaction with the
government’s spending priorities. While membership in both the EU
and NATO has remained at the top of budgetary agendas, spending on
social issues has fallen.

In the 30 July edition of Neatkariga Rita Avize,
coalition Greens and Farmers Union parliamentary faction leader
Augusts Brigmanis said he couldn’t see how the government would be
able to explain why it proposed cutting social spending in the
first year of EU membership.

Both Umblija and Freimanis cited the
consolidation of euroskeptic groups and the influence of Estonian
euroskeptic activity on its neighbor as another factor in the poll
results.

Ahead of their 14 September referendum, some 41
percent of Estonians opposed EU membership, while 53 percent were
in favor, according to a July poll, Interfax reported.

Pollster Freimanis thinks the data also show
that many voters inclined to vote “yes” are taking a greater
interest in the question of integration, and the government
concurs. Prime Minister Einars Repse’s foreign affairs adviser,
Solveiga Silkalna, told the press on 30 July that “the
information campaign is about to intensify and in the weeks to come
a lot will become clearer and opinions will stabilize.”

Many analysts see the emphasis on either-or
thinking as simplistic and misleading, whether in the information
campaign or in media reports.

Arvids Ulme, head of the Environmental
Protection Bureau, encouraged the campaign to involve those who
think differently, saying, “It is wrong to divide society
into euro-optimists and euroskeptics, because that fractures
society. Besides, after joining the EU we will all have to live
together anyway,” he told the campaign’s coordinating council on 30
July.

In its own public discussions on integration,
Ulme said the agency has found people to be more concerned with
practical questions about agriculture, changing management methods,
and how to attract EU funds.

A deeper analysis of opinion on integration was
given in an article by Janis Skapars, a former member of
parliament, in the Diena newspaper on 31 July, where he argued that
Latvians’ views on the EU are strongly shaped by the nation’s
dramatic, often tragic, historical turning points: “It has been a
relatively short period since Latvia regained independence, and
part of the population worries that joining EU may be another loss
of independence.”

Environmental researcher Normunds Prieditis said
that he will vote in favor only because there is no other choice.
“Our neighbor in the East [Russia] is what it is. Even if in
the short term there will be disadvantages for some, in the long
term, economically and politically, we might gain.”

Student Edite Evere said that her “yes” vote is
determined by not wanting Latvia to arrive at “the Belarusian
model, where big Russia will take little brother Latvia under her
wing.”

For Skapars the real worry is not the outcome of
the referendum but citizens’ lack of concern for the future.

In the other countries that have held
referendums this year, he said, “the stumbling block was [voters’]
passivity and insufficient participation.”

The pattern for the other Central and Eastern
European referendums has been relatively low turnout, but strong
support for joining the EU among those who did vote.


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