WHILE European Union leaders breathe a sigh of relief that Malta has (narrowly) voted "yes" to joining the European Union, Slovak politicians are beginning to worry about the Slovakia's own referendum on EU entry taking place in May.
The Maltese vote was close, but not as close as some European commentators were expecting. Almost 53.6 per cent of the electorate voted "yes", with the "no" vote gaining 46.4 per cent. Over 91 per cent of the 300,000 eligible voters turned out. Even hospital patients on stretchers and short-term prisoners were taken to the ballot boxes.
European officials had been worried that a "no" vote would have triggered similar results in the other candidate countries that are having their own referendums in the coming months. In Slovakia, it isn't the "no" vote that they should be worrying about - as current polls show support at almost 80 per cent - rather that enough people turn out to vote.
Slovakia's EU negotiator, Ján Figeľ, and head of the European Commission's Delegation to Slovakia, Eric van der Linden, are both concerned that not enough is being done to encourage Slovaks to participate in the referendum. Deputy Prime Minister Pál Csáky, who is responsible for the campaign, is already coming under fire for not starting it yet.
However, the Government Office says that there is a real danger of overexposure of the issue and believes that a short campaign before the vote will be enough. Sk50 million (1.2 million euro) has been set aside for the campaign, which is due to start two weeks before the referendum itself.
The problem lies with Slovakia's election rules, which state that a referendum result is only valid if more than 50 per cent of the electorate cast their ballots. The worrying fact for EU enthusiasts is that not one of Slovakia's four referenda so far has ever passed that barrier.
This leads to a strange phenomenon reminiscent of Soviet-era elections: There is only one vote worth casting, and that is a "yes" vote. Every "no" vote will take the results closer to the 50 per cent figure and so count towards validating the referendum. Thus, opponents of Slovakia's entry to the EU would be advised to tell their supporters to stay away from the polls on May 16 and 17.
So will we see a "stay at home" campaign from those against EU entry? It seems unlikely, not least because none of the main political parties seem to be voicing opposition. After all, what is the alternative to joining the EU? Slovakia lacks the market strength to remain outside the club when most of its trading parties are in it.
If the eurosceptics do emerge from the closet, perhaps the prime minister might consider contributing to the costs of their campaign. After all, the worry for the government is not in any strong opposition to the vote, but that voter apathy will mean that too many people assume that enough of their neighbours will visit the ballot box. At the final count, it may be simple laziness that decides the outcome of the referendum.
If turnout is too low and the referendum is declared invalid, politicians will no doubt find a way round the problem. In the meantime, perhaps they should consider putting an end to this unwieldy law, which means that in Slovakia, no means yes.
17. Mar 2003 at 0:00