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Western Press Review: Estonia Votes 'Yes' To EU, Postenlargement Political Shifts, And Impasse At The WTO

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 15 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A review of media coverage today finds talk of Estonia's enthusiastic "yes" vote on EU membership while Sweden says "no" to the euro, how a U.S. bribery case is injecting new hope into Azerbaijan's political opposition, upheaval and shifting alliances in a postenlargement European Union, persuading Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions, and an impasse at the World Trade Organization over farm subsidies.


Writing in France's "Liberation," Veronique Soule says Estonia's 67 percent weekend vote in favor of EU membership marks its "return to the European family" and a final rupture with its Soviet past. Long regarded as euro skeptics, she says Estonians began changing their minds over the summer. Seven other EU applicants have already held referendums on joining the bloc, most approving membership. Soule says the late date for the Estonian referendum was chosen to allow for much campaigning ahead of the vote.

Independent only since 1991, many Estonians worry that their hard-won national sovereignty will be diluted upon joining the EU. But the pro-EU camp insists that accession will, on the contrary, make it more possible for Tallinn to be heard -- the alternative is to be left isolated on Russia's doorstep. Anchoring Estonia to the EU as well as NATO, they argued, brings an additional guarantee of independence.

Estonia's liberal reforms have made it a model of success, says Soule. The last EU accession state to hold a referendum will be Latvia, in a vote scheduled for 20 September. She says the resounding "yes" in Tallinn should bolster the pro-EU camp in Riga, where the vote looks set to be tight.


Writing from Washington in the "Financial Times," Joshua Chaffin says a renewed bribery investigation in the United States possibly implicating the Azerbaijani leader "is likely to intensify a succession drama in the Caspian republic that could have profound consequences for the West."

A court in New York last week unsealed an indictment against a Swiss banker accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to Azerbaijani officials to influence the privatization of Azerbaijan's state-owned oil company, SOCAR. Although the officials have not been named, some observers speculate that President Heidar Aliyev and his son, Ilham -- a former head of SOCAR -- may have been involved. A current row over suspected attempts to install the younger Aliyev as his ailing father's successor has further complicated matters.

The Alievs' possible implication in the SOCAR affair "comes at a time of growing political uncertainty in Azerbaijan, a country that is crucial to the U.S. and Western oil companies because of its oil reserves and its position as a gateway to Central Asian energy producers." Baku's political opposition has mobilized since news of the bribery indictment broke, and Chaffin says the case "could offer potent ammunition." The scandal has placed Washington in "an awkward position, forcing the administration to balance the importance of an ally and stability in the region against its stated desire for clean government and democracy."


A commentary in "The New York Times" looks at the collapse of the world trade talks in Mexico over the weekend. Writer Michael Lind of the New America Foundation says the campaign to reduce the West's agricultural subsidies in order to open markets to imports from developing nations is unlikely to achieve all the benefits its supporters want.

While free-trade proponents are getting "lower taxes and expanded markets," he says the "populism and environmentalism" of its liberal supporters "will be thwarted." Agricultural subsidies "ought to be reduced," as most "are anachronistic now that agribusiness in the advanced countries employs only a tiny percentage of the population. [Farm] subsidy programs exploit consumers and taxpayers. They also harm the environment, by creating an economic incentive to cultivate land that might otherwise be left as wilderness."

But Lind says the result of abolishing subsidies "is unlikely to be [the] enrichment of peasant farmers" as foreseen by some. If agriculture in the developing world is modernized and begins to attract agribusiness from the West, "machines will replace family farmers, who will become as rare in Thailand as they are in America." While more efficient farming will "[save] much third world wilderness [from] the plow," many farmers "will be forced off the farm, and therefore may not profit from the access of southern agricultural exporters to northern markets."

Lind says, "What looked like a sweet deal that could satisfy everybody except for subsidized special interests, then, seems destined to fall apart on inspection."


Writing in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," Hannes Gamillscheg comments on the weekend referendum in Sweden that resulted in a "no" vote on the euro, defying expectations that sympathy votes might bolster the "yes" camp after the killing of pro-euro Foreign Minister Anna Lindh last week.

Gamillscheg says the crisis has reinvigorated democracy. The euro referendum in Sweden showed that that democracy there has passed the test. The violent death of the foreign minister caused Swedes to unite; the tough tone of the campaign was mitigated by general sorrow. Nevertheless, the voters were capable of differentiating between sympathy for the fallen politician and the actual issue of joining the single currency. Moreover, the referendum demonstrated the long-term and self-reliant way of thinking in Sweden. Swedish officials have long insisted that Sweden's own solutions are best, and it was not to be expected that they would suddenly begin thinking in internationalist terms, says the commentary.

Even though Sweden's living standards have declined, the general public is still convinced that it can only lose by making changes. Gamillscheg concludes that "the 'no' vote is an expression of a self-righteousness that Anna Lindh's global viewpoint sought to overcome. The Swedes considered adopting the euro as something vague, the Swedish crown as something secure. The voters failed to recognize that it is an illusion in this age of globalization to attempt to maintain the status quo."


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform says the first few years after the EU's May 2004 enlargement "will be a turbulent period for European politics. The 10 newcomers will upset the balance of power between the existing 15 members. New coalitions of interests will emerge, while some of the long-standing partnerships could wither away."

New members "will have little time to learn the basics" before they have to start fighting for their own interests within the union. And their votes will be "wild cards in the game," whereas the 15 current members often know each other's position ahead of negotiations. Most significantly, she says, the EU's Franco-German engine will no longer dominate decision making in the EU. Paris and Berlin "will no longer be able to pre-cook deals bilaterally and then impose them on the rest of the EU."

Priorities will shift as well in an expanded EU, and Brussels might find an emphasis on "policies concerning the EUs eastern neighbors and the protection of minorities [taking] over from old policies such as agriculture and energy." Grabbe says the EUs current 15 "are beginning to understand that enlargement is not just a question of greater numbers but of new political dynamics too. The politics of Europe are about to become more unpredictable -- and more exciting."


A "Financial Times" editorial approves of a 12 September International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution giving Tehran until the end of October to provide more detailed information about its nuclear programs. The paper says the Iraq war "may well have accelerated the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent by Iran, also part of [U.S. President] George W. Bush's 'axis of evil.' The fact that it was waged over weapons of mass destruction that have not been found has also bolstered the arguments of Iranian hard-liners who say no amount of cooperation with inspectors will be deemed sufficient by Washington."

But Iran "will pay a heavy price if it turns its back on the IAEA. Failure to listen to the board would deepen the country's political isolation. It would most certainly doom the trade agreement Iran is hoping to sign with the European Union and cut off outside help in developing nuclear energy."

The "Financial Times" says the "imperfect supervision of the IAEA is the best available option. In the long run, persuading Tehran to give up any nuclear goals will require a more sophisticated strategy that includes pressures as well as incentives. It would have to provide for security guarantees in a region where Iran, too, feels unsafe and weapons of mass destruction proliferate. It is a shame that the [U.S.] administration has no consistent policy towards Tehran at this point. But there is little chance of American policy's evolving in the direction of a comprehensive dialogue unless Iran now acts responsibly."


Estonia's overwhelming "yes" vote yesterday in a referendum on joining the European Union in May 2004 draws comment from Tasso Enzweiler in "Die Welt." He says many countries could learn from Estonia's attempts at economic reform, which he says teach "quite a simple lesson."

He says Estonia has simply applied classic economic liberalism of the kind promoted by American economist Milton Friedman. For eight years now, Estonia has enjoyed impressive economic growth. In 1997, the gross national product (GNP) rose by 10.4 percent, whereas in previous years it was 4.5 percent. Enzweiler says almost nowhere else has the transition to a market economy been so drastic and privatization so successful in such a short period of time.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)