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LOW TURNOUT IN HUNGARIAN REFERENDUM CASTS SHADOW OVER NEXT MONTH'S VOTE IN SLOVAKIA

EU entry signed and sealed

ONLY days after the Hungarian referendum on EU entry, whose low turnout sent a warning to EU supporters in Slovakia, President Rudolf Schuster signed Slovakia's EU accession treaty, finalising a significant part of the integration process.
Eight countries of eastern and central Europe - Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania - plus Malta and Cyprus received invitations to join the EU at the union's summit in Copenhagen last December. The candidates are scheduled to join the EU in May 2004.
The accession treaties provide the legal basis for EU entry, laying out the rights and responsibilities of each state and the larger bloc.


PRIME MINISTER Mikuláš Dzurinda meets EU heads of state at the summit in Athens on April 16.
photo: TASR

ONLY days after the Hungarian referendum on EU entry, whose low turnout sent a warning to EU supporters in Slovakia, President Rudolf Schuster signed Slovakia's EU accession treaty, finalising a significant part of the integration process.

Eight countries of eastern and central Europe - Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania - plus Malta and Cyprus received invitations to join the EU at the union's summit in Copenhagen last December. The candidates are scheduled to join the EU in May 2004.

The accession treaties provide the legal basis for EU entry, laying out the rights and responsibilities of each state and the larger bloc.

The Slovak government approved the treaty unanimously on April 10, and the president added his signature to the document in Athens on April 16.

"We are witnessing an unprecedented unification of Europe. I am very glad that Slovakia is becoming part of the European Union. Just as the Greek god Zeus surrendered to the charms of Poseidon's granddaughter Europa, so are we here now, under the Acropolis, cementing our bonds with the European Union," said President Schuster, at the signing ceremony.

The major EU institutions also approved the accession treaties of all the candidate countries. Disputes over budgetary issues related to enlargement between the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, the union's main decision-making body comprised of member-state representatives, raised concerns that the EU would not be able to keep the April 16 deadline.

But the problems were resolved, and on April 14, during a meeting in Luxembourg, the Council of the EU became the last EU body to approve the accession of the 10 new states.

The treaty must now be ratified by all current EU members and approved in each candidate country. All candidates except Cyprus are planning to hold a referendum on the issue, with Slovakia's scheduled for May 16 and 17.

Slovenia and Malta have already said yes to the EU. In Malta, which on March 8 was the first candidate to hold a plebiscite, over 90 per cent of the electorate cast ballots, of which 52 per cent were in favour of entry.

The citizens of Slovenia made their decision on March 30, when 90 per cent of voters were in favour of joining. Some 60 per cent of the voting public cast their votes.

On April 13, Hungary became the third state to hold a plebiscite on EU entry. Around 46 per cent of Hungarians turned out to vote, out of which 84 per cent voted in favour of their country's accession.

In Hungary, a referendum is valid as long as at least 25 per cent of the electorate vote. In Slovakia, the proportion needed to validate a referendum is 50 per cent.

"If that same proportion of Slovaks turned out to vote in our referendum, it would be declared invalid," warned Ján Figeľ, head of the parliamentary foreign committee, formerly the country's main negotiator with the EU.

None of the four referenda held in Slovakia since the country gained independence in 1993 drew a sufficient number of voters. Against that backdrop, the low turnout in Hungary is seen by many as a warning against complacency.

"The referendum result in Hungary is a warning, which we have to take into account," said Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda.

Dzurinda blamed the lack of interest on the Hungarian opposition, which is critical of many governmental proposals.

"In that [criticism] I see the reasons for the low level of interest in the referendum among Hungarian citizens," Dzurinda said.

The Slovak government has little criticism to fear, as all parliamentary parties have declared their support for the country's efforts to join the EU.

That attitude appears to be reflected in the public at large, also diminishing grounds for concern. According to a survey carried out by the Culture and Public Opinion Research Institute of the National Education Centre between March 27 and April 2, 80 per cent of Slovaks are planning to attend the referendum, out of which 86 per cent would vote in favour of EU integration.

However, critics say these figures should not be used by politicians as an excuse to sit back and relax.

"We cannot rely on opinion polls that indicate high attendance, but use all the time that's left to inform the public [about the EU and the referendum]," said Monika Beňová, vice chair of the opposition party Smer, according to the SITA news agency.

A public-information campaign has just begun, comprising TV and radio spots and large-scale billboards. In addition, all Slovaks have been sent official notices about when and where the referendum will take place.

Nevertheless, it seems even basic information about the plebiscite is not getting across.

"I really did not notice the date of the referendum and I thought it was supposed to be this month. I even asked my grandson to explain to me the details of the voting, and he told me that there still is a month left," said Magda Pospíšilová, 65, a pensioner from Bratislava.

A lack of interest in the issue does not seem to be the problem. The state-run TASR newswire reported that the government's free information hotline, set up on March 3, receives on average 60 calls per day. The questions range from issues such as employment opportunities and expected price increases to euro funds.

With a month to go until the referendum, Prime Minister Dzurinda says he believes there is still enough time to inform the people, as the information campaign gathers momentum.

"The decisive period is still ahead," Dzurinda said.

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