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DECISIONS ON EU MEMBERSHIP NOW IN THE HANDS OF CITIZENS, WHO MAY NOT UNDERSTAND WHAT IS AT STAKE

Candidate countries prepare for referenda

NOW that Slovakia and nine other countries have received an invitation to join the European Union, a series of referenda will follow in the applicant states, which may end up reducing the number of future members.
The most recent round of EU enlargement shows that even after accession talks are over and consensus is found on the political level, accession in not a done deal. In 1994 the EU finished negotiations with four countries - Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway - but only three entered the union in 1995.
Referenda in the first three countries approved accession, but on November 28 1994, eight months after the end of negotiations, Norway's voters rejected the EU for the second time. Norwegians first held a popular vote on the issue in 1972.

NOW that Slovakia and nine other countries have received an invitation to join the European Union, a series of referenda will follow in the applicant states, which may end up reducing the number of future members.

The most recent round of EU enlargement shows that even after accession talks are over and consensus is found on the political level, accession in not a done deal. In 1994 the EU finished negotiations with four countries - Austria, Sweden, Finland and Norway - but only three entered the union in 1995.

Referenda in the first three countries approved accession, but on November 28 1994, eight months after the end of negotiations, Norway's voters rejected the EU for the second time. Norwegians first held a popular vote on the issue in 1972.

The constitution makes clear that if the people of Slovakia reject EU entry in their referendum, to be held at the end of May or beginning of June 2003, the country will not join the Union. As a result, politicians are anxious to garner as much support as possible for the plebiscite - and EU membership.

"We want to do our best to make the referendum successful," said speaker of the Slovak Parliament Pavol Hrušovský on December 14.

The Candidate Countries Eurobarometer 2002, a public opinion analysis by the European Commission, concluded that "the referenda on membership could be more influenced by low turnout than opposition to membership".

That may well prove the case in Slovakia, where voter turnout of more than 50 per cent is required to validate the referendum. When a referendum is declared invalid, a new one on the same issue can take place only after a period of two years.

Over the last 10 years, Slovakia has held four referenda on various issues, but none of them attracted more than 50 per cent of the voters. Moreover, voter apathy was shown in the municipal elections in early December, when only 49.5 per cent of voters participated. This poor show was blamed on a growing fatigue with politics after September's parliamentary elections. Will that apathy have passed by next spring?

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda admitted the possibility of low turnout concerns the government, and mentioned further factors that could add to the people's reluctance to vote for EU membership.

"It's not political opposition that we fear, but the negative impact people might feel from our reforms," said Dzurinda.

According to the prime minister, the impacts of these reforms, many of them intended to prepare Slovakia for EU membership, will start to show in February or March of next year, only weeks before the planned referendum.

Other candidate countries facing the prospect of low voter turnout, have passed laws to safeguard against it. The Czechs recently approved a constitutional law that stipulates that a referendum on EU entry will be valid even if less than half the voting public shows up at the polls.

However, six months before the planned referendum, the Slovak government, determined to bring the country into the EU, seems to be in a good position. The latest opinion polls show 69 per cent support for EU entry, while only 12 per cent are opposed, and no parliamentary party has voiced objections to the country's EU membership.

More importantly, 69 per cent of voters say they are determined to participate in a referendum.

In addition, the administration has already pledged Sk30 million ($750,000) for a referendum campaign. The government has not yet appointed anyone to be responsible for this, but it is thinking of ways to attract voters.

"[EU membership] is a huge opportunity and it would be good if the Slovak citizens took advantage of this opportunity in next year's referendum by [delivering] a very decisive 'yes'," said Deputy Prime Minister Pál Csáky.

But even if the government gets the result it wants, some countries warn that EU membership is not the bed of roses many candidate countries are expecting.

For example, during its accession negotiations, Finland ran into similar sticking points to the Visegrad Four countries, particularly when debating farm subsidy levels.

"[Agriculture] was the main topic in the negotiations on accession and everybody knew that the farmers would be the biggest losers," said Bjarne Nitovuori, a journalist from the Finnish newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet.

"The main aim of the government was to obtain the best terms possible for the Finnish agriculture sector. [Nevertheless], after accession the market prices of agricultural products collapsed so that at the end of the decade they were about 50 per cent of the level before accession," he continued.

"It was compensated by direct subsidies from the EU and from the Finnish budget with permission of the EU. But the compensation did not match the loss of income. The result has been that the number of farms has radically decreased."

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