Public opinion – stumbling block for enlargement?

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

The EU summit in Nice made it abundantly clear that enlargement is a highly sensitive political issue. But in Nice, only one thorny issue connected with enlargement, the question of institutional reform, was settled – and not necessarily for the better. Before the Central and Eastern European countries join the EU there are still other difficult questions to be dealt with, such as the arrangements for the freedom of movement for persons, the re-sizing of the Structural Funds and the integration of the new members into the common agricultural policy. In other words, decisions of enormous political import still have to be taken. It will be even more necessary than with the complicated reorganisation of the EU institutions to communicate these decisions democratically, for they will directly affect both the countries and their citizens.

It is thus increasingly important for the enlargement process that attention be devoted to the factors and motives that determine public opinion on the enlargement of the EU in the old and new member countries. This report seeks to give an initial survey of the situation in east and west.

Public opinion is decisive

Public acceptance of enlargement is a major consideration in the politics of the old” EU and the candidate countries. And it also affects the process of economic alignment in the Central and Eastern European countries. Potential investors are sometimes still hesitant to become engaged in the candidate countries owing to the half-hearted commitment and inadequate levels of support for enlargement in Western Europe. The public’s lack of information and irrational fears of the repercussions of enlargement make it easy for interest groups in east and west to magnify the alleged disadvantages of enlargement. The Commission and the member states have realised the need for action in this respect and plan to raise public awareness of the opportunities which enlargement will create.

In the candidate countries, public opinion on EU membership can be taken as an indicator of the willingness of the people to support their governments’ reforms in preparation for joining the Union. Alignment with the body of EU legislation, theacquis communautaire, is a highly demanding agenda for the candidate countries. Even the most advanced still have to put through a whole series of reforms. The restructuring of heavy industry, the reform of social security systems and environmental protection are still high on the to-do list of many governments and must be given the necessary political legitimation. Poland, Estonia and several other candidate countries have, for this reason, recently indicated that they also plan to conduct public information campaigns.

Widespread support in the candidate countries

Going by opinion polls, the attitude of the population in the candidate countries is positive. The numbers in favour of accession to the EU remain high. If a referendum were held, an average of 61% of citizens in the candidate countries would vote for membership. It cannot yet be said definitively, though, in which countries a referendum will take place, as this will depend on both constitutional and political considerations. In Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Estonia (see box) there is a clear political will to put the final decision in the hands of the people.

In all the candidate countries there are considerable differences between the stance of the social elites and that of the rest of the population. This is not surprising, and the situation is much the same in the EU-15. The fact that about 80% of the so-called opinion leaders in the candidate countries are definitely pro-integration illustrates to what extent a higher level of information and education strengthens support for enlargement.

Differences between countries

While the cand idates’ stance is generally positive, there are significant differences between the individual countries.

  • The proportion of the population in favour of joining the EU is relatively steady and high in thefive Central European countries, i.e. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia. The level of support for EU membership has changed only marginally compared with the previous Eurobarometer survey in 1998 (see box). Not only are there sound approval ratings ranging from 55% (Hungary, Czech Republic) to over 60% (Poland, Slovakia), but the numbers of opponents remain low. Only 15-20% of those interviewed in these countries in 1998 and 2000 were against joining.
  • The Baltic countries are a special case.Estonia, Latvia and Lithuaniaregularly bring up the rear in the approval ratings and have the highest percentage of membership opponents, namely some 30% of the population. At the last polls, those in favour of joining the EU would have been in the majority (40-45%) at a referendum in the Baltic republics, too. But approval ratings of 30-35% were not uncommon in the past, so uncertainty still remains.
  • In contrast to the picture in the Baltic countries, the approval ratings in the two Balkan countriesBulgaria and Romaniawere strikingly high. 72% of the population in Romania and 60% in Bulgaria are in favour of entering the EU (other sources give a rating of over 70% for Bulgaria, too).

How can the differences be explained?

The different results in the three “subregions” highlight three factors which greatly influence the attitude of the public:

  • The degree of satisfaction with the economic and political situation in the home country makes EU membership appear a more, or less, promising prospect.
  • The level of information on the implications of enlargement and about the EU – which is largely dependent on the level of education – shows a positive correlation with support for membership.
  • If citizens associate new, personal opportunities and prospects with EU membership this increases the approval rating.

The Balkans: a desire for change

General dissatisfaction with the present economic and political situation is a major factor behind the positive attitude of the public in Bulgaria and Romania. The desire for change has been reinforced by disappointment with the reform process and falling standards of living. This also explains the low proportion of persons definitely opposed to EU membership. Few people see any reason to stand in the way of change.The people in both countries see EU membership as opening up greater personal opportunities (for travel and education, for example).

Baltic people give NATO membership priority

The picture in the Baltic republics looks different. The reform course followed there in recent years has been successful; per-capita income continues to rise, and the domestic political situation has, on the whole, been stable.The Baltic people have reason to be fairly content with the development of their home countries. Personal opportunities and prospects have multiplied since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Owing especially to their proximity on the Baltic Sea coast, the countries already have close cultural and economic ties with the two EU members Finland and Sweden.

There is dissatisfaction with one area of the current situation, an area in which the people believe EU membership would change little: their continuing dependence on Russia and the resultant external political uncertainty. In all three countries, membership of NATO is therefore considered more important than accession to the EU (see box). Incidentally, the large Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia are neither more nor less pro-EU than the Baltic citizens themselves. Many Russian- speaking inhabitants believe EU membership would improve their personal situation and the Baltic countries’ not al ways tension-free relations with Russia.

Heterogeneous picture in Central Europe

Surveys among the people of the Central European countries paint a more heterogeneous picture. Thanks to the generally sound development of these countries’ economies, there has emerged a new, well-educated and relatively young middle class that is positively inclined towards the enlargement of the EU. The overwhelming majority of those aged 18 to 50 are in favour of joining and name the positive economic effects as one of the main reasons. Self-employed and white- collar workers are generally pro-EU, while pensioners and less highly qualified employees have the greatest reservations. There are similar differences between the urban and rural populations. The latter see themselves as potentially losing out in the future reform process.

The consequences of the eastward enlargement are seen quite realistically: about 40% of the inhabitants in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary believe their country’s economy will benefit from integration into the EU; only one-fifth are sceptical. In the opinion of most Central Europeans, growth opportunities for export-related sectors, macroeconomic stability, and rising financial aid from Brussels will stimulate the modernisation of the economy. But the picture of the negative consequences is also realistic: greater competitive pressure on domestic companies and the need for further painful adjustment.

Very realistic about entry dates

In the political debate on possible entry dates, concern is often expressed that further postponement would weaken reform-minded governments and aggravate political instability in Eastern Europe – which would not help either the EU or the candidates.The responses to the date question in opinion polls suggest that this view needs to be qualified. The polls show that a majority of the people do not expect their country to join until about the middle of the decade. In Poland – which, like Hungary, has kept 2003 as its official target date – over 40% of the population do not expect to join the EU until 2004 or 2005. The numbers of optimists (by 2003) and pessimists (after 2006) are roughly equal in Poland, as in the Czech Republic and Estonia. Only in Hungary and Slovenia does a considerably higher percentage (approx. 25%) believe enlargement will take place early. Accession in one large group – in 2005, as assumed in our baseline scenario – would, in all probability, be accepted by the people of the candidate countries.

Public perception of the accession negotiations

Despite the progress made in the accession negotiations particularly in the past year, the questions which could become the real stumbling blocks for enlargement because of their financial or domestic political implications have so far only been touched upon: foreign ownership of land, freedom of movement for workers, and integration into the common agricultural policy. Candidate countries and some EU members alike are demanding transition periods, in some cases lengthy, in these areas. With an eye to domestic politics, the Eastern European governments, especially that of Poland, are determined to defend their position in the negotiations under the motto “equal duties, equal rights”.

What attitude does the public in the candidate countries take on these questions? What scope do the political decision-makers have?

  • The results regarding the question of the liberalisation of capital movements for the purpose ofacquiring landare surprising: the attitude of the public in Poland and the Czech Republic is more positive than expected (Poland is officially demanding an 18-year transition period and the Czech Republic has great reservations about speedy liberalisation), and it is also more open than that in Hungary, for which history in less of an obstacle. Over 40% of Poles think that after their country joins the EU foreigners should ha ve the right to acquire land in Poland; proponents and opponents of liberalisation are roughly equal in number (42% vs 43%). Also, 37% of the Czech population is of the same opinion, whereas three-quarters of Hungary’s inhabitants are opposed to foreigners being permitted to buy land. At least, the figures for the Czech Republic and Poland do not suggest great public pressure on the government’s negotiating position.
  • According to the polls, the majority of citizens considerfreedom of movementto be very important (e.g. some 60% of the Polish population). Studies of plans or potential for labour migration suggest, however, that few Eastern Europeans intend to take advantage of this possibility. It is therefore difficult to judge how much significance will be attached to this issue in the political debate.
  • As regards the consequences of EU integration foragriculture, there are only minor differences between Poland on the one hand and the less farming-oriented countries on the other. Many Eastern Europeans think that enlargement of the EU will primarily benefit farmers in the old member states. Expectations that their own country will benefit from the common agricultural policy are low.

Enlargement stabilises party system

The prospect of EU membership has already had an enormous effect on the programmatic positioning of the political parties in Central and Eastern Europe. It has been a real boon to domestic political stability. It has enabled the two main political camps in the transformation countries – the national-conservative and the reform-socialist groupings – to meet on some common ground. For many socialist parties, the prospect of integration into the EU was an opportunity to propagate a more open, less nation-oriented model of the state that contrasted with the basically conservative-national character of the Central and Eastern European countries; in this context, they were prepared to support liberal economic reforms. The conservative parties saw accession to the EU primarily as a chance to push the economic reform process; for this, they were prepared to accept the concomitant loss of national autonomy.  

In almost all the candidate countries there is now broad basic consensus among the major parties to the left and right of the centre that the preparations for joining the EU are in the overriding national interest. Even a change of government has very seldom led to a radical change of direction. Differences between successive governments were in the speed of adjustment, rarely in the substance of the reforms.

Parties that are staunchly opposed to EU membership are politically isolated in most of the candidate countries. They have limited success at elections, much like the anti-EU parties in the present Union. In practice, the only opponents are nationalists, unreformed communist parties and – to a lesser extent – some rural parties. Following Slovakia’s experience in the years under Vladimir Meciar, the situation seems to have normalised there, too.

Party landscape changing

More recently, the party systems in Central and Eastern Europe have increasingly cast off the mould formed in the initial years after Communism collapsed roughly ten years ago. On the political right, the defining effect of anti-Communism has faded as reformed and modern social-democratic parties have emerged. Socio-economic factors and interests increasingly influence party membership, while the role of ideological or religious differences is diminishing.

The national orientation in politics is being pushed aside by European topics. In many countries, new social-democratic parties have taken a credible stand for integration and have few qualms about relinquishing or restricting highly prized national sovereignty in many areas. The conservative parties have greater difficulties here. But the problem of surrendering sovereignty is generally proving consider ably less complicated than had been expected. It seems as if the economic and social difficulties of the transformation years have weakened the belief of the Central and Eastern Europeans, too, in the omnipotence of the nation-state.

Reorientation in the centre right?

These factors are altering the situation for the conservative parties in particular. It has not been just by chance that new political movements have emerged in a number of countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, that are positioning themselves very successfully in the centre, or centre right, of the political spectrum. Both the conservative party platform in Poland, in which former members of the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) and Freedom Union have united, and the Czech four-party Quad Coalition” (4K) of conservative and liberal parties could become modern mainstream parties that transcend the old divisions. Free of the ballast of the past, their pro-Europe and pro-integration party line appeals to the new middle classes. None of the new groupings has fought a major election yet. But the parliamentary elections in Poland in September 2001 could already bring the end of the AWS’s dominance of the political right. The party system in some Central and Eastern European countries could well look very different in several years’ time. And it can certainly be said that such a development is unlikely to lessen the will to reform and the political support for the eastward enlargement in the candidate countries.

EU member states: mixed feelings

In the present EU member states, the upcoming large-scale enlargement of the Union is controversial, much like the EU’s other major project, the euro. Only a relative majority of 44% of the population is in favour of taking in new members; 35% are against. The scepticism even seems to be increasing as the prospect of enlargement takes on more concrete shape. Since 1998, when accession negotiations were started with the countries of the Luxembourg group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus), support for enlargement has fallen in eleven member countries, has remained the same in three, and has risen in only one (Belgium). According to recent surveys, the inhabitants of the Nordic EU countries are among the strongest supporters of enlargement, while the United Kingdom, Austria, France and Germany rank at the lower end.

Few clear opinion patterns

It is an interesting question whether a definite pattern can be identified among the attitudes towards enlargement. Is, for example, the willingness to accept new members greater if interviewees believe that their country has on balance benefited from being a member of the EU? There are indeed certain parallels here (see chart on page 9). They are particularly striking in the case of Germany, Greece, Spain, Austria and the United Kingdom. But there are also examples where this does not apply. The vast majority of people questioned in Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal said their countries had benefited, but they did not support the enlargement to the same extent (though, with the exception of the Netherlands, support was stronger than the EU average). In Sweden there is also a wide gap between the ratings: the majority of the population supports the enlargement, but only 25% are convinced that their own country has benefited from being a member of the EU. The United Kingdom is sceptical in both respects. Similarly, it cannot be said that, over time, the surveys show a definite, close link between support for the enlargement and a country’s position as net payer (concern about a further rise in payments due to the enlargement) or as recipient of structural funds (concern about a reduction in assistance due to the necessary redistribution of funds). Neither does proximity to the candidate countries play a significant role, either positive or negative. In the final analysis, the attitude of the po pulation towards the enlargement is probably based on a nationally coloured bundle of economic, political and cultural or historical aspects.

This can be seen by looking not just at the attitude towards the enlargement as a whole but at a breakdown by candidate country and home country of those interviewed. In all member states support is greatest for two countries which are not even interested in joining the EU: Norway and Switzerland. This is no doubt due to the feeling that these countries have a comparable level of prosperity as well as political and institutional structures that are known to be sound. It hardly takes account of the fact that if Norway and Switzerland were members, deeper European integration would probably be much more complicated.

Of the 13 countries 4 taking part in the enlargement process, Hungary is (after Malta) the country for which support is strongest (50% overall). It ranges between 32% in France and 66% in Denmark and Sweden. For Poland, support lies between 23% in Austria and 69% in Sweden (41% overall) and for the Czech Republic it is between 27% in France and 68% in Sweden (41% overall). Support for Cyprus is, as might be expected, strongest in Greece (87%).

Copenhagen accession criteria important

With a view to taking new members into the EU the Copenhagen European Council in 1993 formulated accession criteria which must be met by the candidate countries. The surveys show that 95% of those interviewed in the EU consider democracy to be a major pre-requisite for accession. Willingness to adopt the acquis communautaire and adhere to the goals of the Union is also demanded by the majority (82%) as a condition for accession.

It is more difficult to interpret the answer to the question whether the “level of economic development” should be close to that of other member states. If this has been taken to refer to the criterion of a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competitive pressure, then the opinion of the interviewees tallies with the intentions of the Copenhagen criteria. That would not be the case if the interviewees understood it as meaning economic convergence, i.e. a level of prosperity approaching that of the existing members. In view of the income gap between the EU and the candidate countries, fulfilment of such a criterion would greatly delay accession for many candidates – whereas some degree of income differential is economically and politically acceptable.

The respondents’ assessment of the importance of most of the enlargement criteria has changed little, but greater importance is now attached to both the level of economic development and the willingness of candidates to put the interest of the EU above their own (1998: 73% and 67%, respectively; 2000: 76% and 71%).

Surveys as guide for political action?

Surveys are sentiment barometers which also serve as an important guide in political decision-making. Not too much importance should be attached to the survey results, however, for they are often influenced by the way a question is put. In Eurobarometer Report No. 53 (April-May 2000), for example, people were asked whether they regarded welcoming new member countries as a priority for the EU. The question was put differently in the latest Eurobarometer (November-December 2000): people were asked whether they were for or against enlargement of the Union. Even if the results are not directly comparable in any case, it is quite possible that the number of positive answers (for the EU-15) rose from 38% to 44% merely because of the change in the way the question was phrased. The fact remains that this EU project, while broadly supported by the political class in Europe, does not have strong backing among the population. It is not possible to say definitely why this is the case.

One important aspect is no doubt that it is easier to quantify the (temporary) disadvantages than t he advantages (strains on resources and fiercer competition vs stronger growth momentum and greater political stability). Besides, it is practically impossible for the individual citizen to see the full implications of the enlargement. Experience shows that both of these points are more likely to lead to developments being rejected rather than approved. In addition, the number of those whose answer to the enlargement question was “Don’t know” was unusually high (in the EU-15 one-fifth of those asked, and in individual countries even more than one-quarter). This provides a great opportunity – and an obligation – for politicians to work to convince people, by providing appropriate information, that the Central and Eastern European reform countries should be included in the EU. One outstanding example is the question of the effects of the enlargement on employment. Looking at Germany, worries that the opening of Eastern Europe could cost Germany jobs have proved to be unfounded. The opposite has been the case: the countries’ strong demand for imports has in fact helped to safeguard German jobs. Similar erroneous views can be heard in the debate about transition periods for the freedom of movement for persons. For one thing, the empirical evidence shows that migration only takes place on a large scale if economic conditions in a country or region are not expected to improve. In view of the reform countries’ favourable growth outlook, this does not apply to them. And secondly, Germany’s demand for (foreign) labour is going to rise in the near future owing to its demographics.

The uncertainty of the general public about what the eastern enlargement will bring also shows up in national surveys, in this case for Germany, and has to be seen in the context of their overall assessment of the future of Europe. The majority of people are of the opinion that the enlargement will weaken the Union. At the same time, though, a majority is in favour of the accession of the Central and Eastern European countries, regardless of any advantages or disadvantages, simply “because they are Europeans”. These replies also reflect the dichotomy between basic convictions and the practicalities of large projects. The picture in other member states is likely to be similar. If, in addition, the population gains the impression that, as at the Nice summit, the politicians are not doing all that is necessary to safeguard both the Union’s ability to function and its forward-looking orientation, then the unease among the EU population that the number of EU member states is to be doubled before long is understandable. Here, too, it is the job of the politicians to prepare the Union better for enlargement by carrying out appropriate reforms both of the EU institutions and of the common agricultural and structural policies. The so-called “post-Nice process” offers sufficient possibilities.

Elections in EU countries influence enlargement negotiations

Since there are few countries where the topic of enlargement evidently evokes a definitely positive response, the governments of the member states find themselves in a dilemma, especially in election years. Even objectively justified concessions to candidate countries in the course of the accession negotiations could reduce their election prospects at home. On the other hand, an inflexible stance in the negotiations could delay enlargement and give rise to political instability in individual candidate countries. Next year, elections are due to be held in six of the fifteen EU member states, including France and Germany. Italy and the United Kingdom will go to the polls already in 2001. The EU has tried to take this into account in its road map”9 for the accession negotiations: it wants to open – and provisionally close – most of the outstanding chapters in the current year. It would be good if the negotiations followed the Commission’s road map, particularly since the critical issues in most chapters have already been identified. Even so, it seems alm ost impossible to avoid debates on the most controversial topics coinciding with election preparations – there will always be elections in the offing somewhere in the EU. This makes it all the more important that the different political parties back the enlargement process by taking a clearly positive stance and providing factual information.


For in-depth analysis, see the Deutsche Bank Research

Enlargement Monitor.  

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