Political backchat clouds euro campaign

THE EURO has spent March squarely in the spotlight. The official hearts-and-minds campaign to win Slovaks over to the delights of eurozone membership kicked off in early March, 300 days ahead of the planned switch-over date. The first stage of the wide-ranging campaign, valued at Sk180 million, defines the milestones on the road to adoption that the country faces in 2008 and talks about the benefits of the new currency.

THE EURO has spent March squarely in the spotlight. The official hearts-and-minds campaign to win Slovaks over to the delights of eurozone membership kicked off in early March, 300 days ahead of the planned switch-over date. The first stage of the wide-ranging campaign, valued at Sk180 million, defines the milestones on the road to adoption that the country faces in 2008 and talks about the benefits of the new currency.

However, the media launch has to some extent been overshadowed by comments from both the ruling coalition and the opposition camp.

In early March, Ján Slota, chairman of the Slovak National Party, a member of the governing coalition, joined the euro-discourse by first suggesting that the date for euro-adoption in 2009 should be put on hold. Then, less than a week later, he corrected himself and insisted that his party stands firmly behind the original euro schedule.

A couple of days after Slota, Prime Minister Robert Fico stirred up the media by saying that what he described as "the anti-government media" should be excluded from the Sk180 million publicity campaign.

"I don't see any point in stuffing public money into private dailies that have been lashing out left and right at the government and its strategic goal to adopt the euro." Fico told news television channel TA3 on March 12. "Above all, we want to make sure we avoid the scenario where at eight in the morning there is a five-minute spot running against the euro, against the government and its intentions to adopt the euro, then at nine a positive euro-spot is aired."

Media managers and the opposition said that the prime minister should not treat the campaign as if it were only for the voters of the ruling coalition.

"Fico has been acting as though the euro was intended only for the readers of the pro-government media," the former cabinet appointee for euro adoption Ivan Štefanec told The Slovak Spectator. "He forgets that all Slovak and even EU taxpayers have contributed to the Sk180 million for the euro campaign. They definitely haven't been collecting money just for the benefit of Robert Fico's voters."

Štefanec also said that major Slovak media outlets have been doing the job of the government and state institutions by informing the public about euro-adoption.

The present cabinet appointee on euro adoption, Igor Barát, said it would be unprofessional for him to comment on the prime minister's statements.

Barát however said that there are standard and professional criteria used to select media outlets for involvement in the official campaign.

"A professional external agency manages the purchase of media ad space and before the launch of any new project the agency submits an optimal proposal for this purchase," Barát told The Slovak Spectator. "Then, a managing committee consisting of representatives of the Finance Ministry, the National Bank of Slovakia and the communication agency approves or modifies it."

Fico's party colleague and European Parliament member Monika Beňová told the Hospodárske Noviny financial daily that she agrees with the prime minister that it would be counter-productive to run ads in media outlets that tend to criticise the euro. However, Beňová also added that she has not noticed any media that have been specifically against the adoption of the euro.

Regardless of the political talk, Barát said that the preparations for and first stage of the euro campaign, from the workroom of media promotion agency Creo/Young & Rubican, have been proceeding in line with the plans.

The first stage focuses on the general public, communicating messages about the euro-switch milestones in 2008 and explaining the benefits of the joint currency. Slovakia's major television stations have been broadcasting a 40-second shot called "Eurostory" for two weeks. When this first stage has finished, the authorities will evaluate it, Barát said.

The campaign consists of seven stages. In the second stage people will learn more about the euro conversion rate, while in the following stages information on dual pricing and banknote safety features will feature. In November households will receive calculators and brochures, according to the Sme daily.

Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) deputies Eduard Kukan and Štefanec have been critical of the campaign. Kukan, who served as the country's foreign affairs minister under the previous Dzurinda government told public service Slovak Radio that the campaign has been delayed and the government should have been more proactive in its steps.

According to Štefanec, the government has misjudged personnel issues.

"As a result Slovakia had been without a cabinet appointee on euro-adoption for nine months, and it took the government a whole year to propose a new deputy governor for monetary policies," said Štefanec.

He also listed a tender that had been messed up three times before being awarded and the fact that Slovakia is still waiting for a regulation on double pricing.

"In all the countries that have previously joined the euro, one year before the actual switch the public's knowledge of the currency has increased, along with public support for adoption. But in Slovakia the situation has been different," Štefanec told The Slovak Spectator.

Surveys all show that the public is poorly informed, which directly contributes to mistrust in the new currency and fears about the switch, Štefanec said.

"Better informed citizens are more likely to support the new currency than uninformed ones," Štefanec said. "The reasons are evidently linked to late and insufficient information."

Barát responded that the attitude of the opposition deputy was a political rather than a professional stand. He said that his statements are based on six-month old data from a Eurobarometer survey from September 2007.

The cabinet appointee on the euro said that the latest available data tells a different story. Barát referred to surveys by Focus from February 2008 which showed a 10-percent drop in the number of euro-opponents compared to Focus surveys in 2007 at the time when the campaign started, along with a 5-percent increase in the number of well-informed citizens.

However, the number of people who view the planned euro adoption positively in Slovakia has not changed since the autumn of 2007, and remained at 43 percent, according to the survey by the Focus polling agency, which was conducted between January 29 and February 5 on a sample of 1,038 respondents.

While the number of people who viewed the euro negatively dropped from 52 percent in the fall of 2007 to 42 percent in 2008, these respondents are now in the group that does not know what to expect from the introduction of the single European currency in Slovakia, wrote the SITA newswire.

According to Focus, 15 percent of respondents were unable to express an opinion, a considerable increase from last autumn when the figure stood at 5 percent.

Those who support the euro's introduction are mostly aged under 44, while people older than 60 tend to be negative about the euro.

However, some criticism regarding the timing of the campaign has also emerged from the ruling coalition itself. Slota told the private broadcaster Radio Express on March 13 that the "campaign started a little late and not aggressively enough".

"I keep repeating that good timing is one of the keys for a successful campaign," Barát told The Slovak Spectator. "The campaign will be at its most intensive in the second half of 2008 when the European Union Council's decision will be known and the conversion rate defined. This timing is absolutely the best and most effective."

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