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EDITORIAL

Slovaks reach a historic decision despite the government's campaign

AS THE referendum results come in, Slovakia is one step nearer to becoming a full member of the European Union. But what a stumbling step it has been.
There was never any doubt that the vote would be in favour of EU accession, and more than 90 percent of the voters giving their support to Slovakia's entry to the EU certainly proves that the confidence was warranted.
However, the low turnout, just a few percentage points above the 50 percent required for validating the referendum result, means that it is not only those who voted in favour who will ensure Slovakia's place in the European Union, but those who voted against.


The real credit for the successful referendum should go to the national newspapers, which have kept the referendum issue in the public eye for much of the last two months - their campaign has been clear, informative and effective. Unlike the government campaign in every way.

AS THE referendum results come in, Slovakia is one step nearer to becoming a full member of the European Union. But what a stumbling step it has been.

There was never any doubt that the vote would be in favour of EU accession, and more than 90 percent of the voters giving their support to Slovakia's entry to the EU certainly proves that the confidence was warranted.

However, the low turnout, just a few percentage points above the 50 percent required for validating the referendum result, means that it is not only those who voted in favour who will ensure Slovakia's place in the European Union, but those who voted against.

For without the 160,000 votes against the referendum the turnout would have been just 48 percent, and Slovakia would have seen itself struggling to justify accepting the invalid referendum and waiting to see if the current members of the European Union were prepared to swallow a fudging of the issue.

When a vote with over 90 percent in favour is almost a failure, something is wrong with the voting system.

The Czechs removed their quorum and the Hungarians reduced their minimum turnout levels to 25 percent in advance of their referenda on entry to the EU. Slovak politicians were unable to agree to do the same.

Given that turnout was always going to be the biggest problem, who can be blamed for such a low one? Pál Csáky, the deputy prime minister responsible for publicising the referendum, seems the obvious target, but we should not forget all those who backed him throughout, despite the clear indications that the campaign was failing to inform the public.

A few weeks ago, Csáky said: "Why should I lose sleep if some fans go to an empty stadium at 15:30 and start shouting that the captain should be changed because no goal has been scored, when the match doesn't start until 16:30? That's not my problem."

Well, the match is over now and while narrowly avoiding scoring an own goal, there is little for the fans to cheer about. It is Csáky's problem now.

His game plan was apparently to leave much of his team on the bench - according to the April issue of the marketing journal Stratégie, the government planned an intensive four-week information campaign on EU membership, to start after the referendum had already closed.

Surely, that is a little late to help people come to their decision on which way to vote.

It is time for Csáky to be shuffled out of his post and into another, less vital position. Perhaps there is a job waiting for him at with the Slovak Secret Service - at least if he were ever to leak any information no one would actually notice.

The real credit for the successful referendum should go to the national newspapers, which have kept the referendum issue in the public eye for much of the last two months - their campaign has been clear, informative and effective. Unlike the government campaign in every way.

There is still time though for the government to make up for the mistakes of the last month and produce a bigger, better campaign in the run-up to May 2004.

Now that Slovakia has a virtually guaranteed place in the European Union, the government must ensure that the country is ready to make the best of this great opportunity.

Businesses have to be given all the support available to ensure that they are prepared for the new competition that will come in May next year. It is not enough to simply be cheaper than businesses in other European countries, there must also be greater attention paid to improving quality and professionalism.

Citizens will also need to have the benefits and drawbacks of entry to the union carefully explained to them (something that has been noticeably absent from the government campaign so far).

Already we are seeing that some opportunities risk being missed - European organisations and the government have both warned that there are not enough projects in place to take advantage of the €570 million available to the country next year.

And finally, politicians should use the solidarity they have shown over the week leading up to the referendum to build new alliances and strengthen the democratic structures here. For Slovakia to have a strong voice in Europe it must have strong voices at home, politicians who are prepared to fight for the bigger picture and not simply the bigger cut for themselves or their party.

British daily The Times reported on May 16: "[Slovakia] has the weakest claim of the post-Communist accession countries. It lacks institutions strong enough to fight corruption in politics and the judiciary, or shady privatisation."

Now is the time to show the world that Slovakia has changed and is ready to face a bright and European future. Everyone must work together to ensure that Slovakia will not be seen as a poor cousin, but as a full partner in the new expanded European Union of 2004.

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