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EU: Poll Says Citizens Poorly Informed On Enlargement

The results of last month's EU summit in Goteborg suggested that the EU's expansion into countries in Eastern Europe could be as little as three years away. But an opinion poll released in Brussels on 2 July shows that three out of four EU citizens consider themselves "badly informed" about enlargement. To make matters worse, European Commission officials admit a $127 million (150 million euro) enlargement promotional campaign launched in May last year has yet to get under way. Brussels, 3 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A "Eurobarometer" poll, taken in the 15 European Union member countries this spring, shows that only 19 percent of EU citizens consider themselves "well" or "very-well informed" about enlargement. More than three in every four say they do not have sufficient information about the enlargement process.

Almost two-thirds of those polled agree that enlargement is necessary to unite the European continent. But only 21 percent think all candidate countries should be admitted, while nearly half (45 percent) say only some candidates should be able to join. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic garner the most votes when respondents pick the three Eastern European countries they would like to see join first.

Around 40 percent of all EU citizens say they have not seen, read, or heard anything about the results of last December's Nice summit. The treaty to emerge from the summit was drawn up with the express aim of preparing EU institutions for the admission of up to 12 new members. It was rejected by a referendum in Ireland last month.

Yesterday, the European Commission's enlargement spokesman Jean-Cristophe Filori said the commission was concerned about the results of the poll:

"[The result] just reflects that the level of information is [clearly] insufficient in the member states in the European Union on the enlargement process." Filori refused to place blame for the "Eurobarometer" results, insisting that keeping EU citizens informed about enlargement should be an "overall effort" involving the European Commission, member states, and civil society.

He also admitted that a $127 million (150 million euro) information campaign -- launched by the commission in May last year to promote enlargement in both member and candidate countries -- had yet to get off the ground.

Filori said the ambitious program -- scheduled to run between 2000 and 2006 -- had been stuck in a "procedural" wrangle between various EU institutions until a few weeks ago when it was endorsed by the European Parliament: "I cannot deny that we had a number of technical problems, including on how to combine best the communication campaign for the member states and the communication campaign for the candidate countries. Now [that] we have a green light [after an] agreement with the [European] parliament, we are confident this campaign will find its normal rhythm in the coming months."

Filori says the campaign should gain "cruising speed" by the end of the year -- nearly two years after it was scheduled to begin. The delay is particularly surprising considering that the press release announcing the campaign's launch last May was direct in addressing what was at stake: "An enlargement process which will almost double the number of EU member states and bring about major changes affecting the citizens can only be carried out successfully while thoroughly informing public opinion and gaining its support."

Yet, of the $127 million allocated for the campaign, only $50 million (58 million euros) is set aside for the member states, with slightly more (59 million euros) earmarked for candidate countries. Some $26 million (30 million euros) will be used for "Brussels-based activities."

A number of EU countries -- Germany and France among them -- face elections before 2003. A public fearful that enlargement will lead to mass immigration and extra financial costs could force governments' hands and lead to delays or deadlocks in talks on sensitive issues like agriculture, regional aid, and future budget contributions.

Another factor to consider is the increasing preoccupation of the European public with the future direction of European integration. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, representing the incoming EU presidency, yesterday commented on many people's "underlying fears of loss of identity." Those fears could conceivably tip the scales of EU public opinion against enlargement.