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EU: Thinking The Unthinkable -- What If Candidates Decide Not To Join?

The Central and Eastern European candidate countries are tentatively scheduled to begin entering the European Union in 2004. In most cases, the governments of the candidates are committed to holding referenda on the issue -- and no one can foresee the results of such votes. It's possible that while the governments say "yes" to membership, the people may say "no."

Prague, 11 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Years of planning and negotiation by Central and Eastern European countries are supposed to reach fruition in 2004, with the expected accession of as many as eight countries to the European Union.

The governments of the candidate states have been working hard for that moment, on the expectation that membership will bring increased economic prosperity, as well as a sense of belonging to a new united Europe.

In most cases, however, the citizens of the candidate countries will be asked to approve joining the EU in national referenda. And, as public opinion stands now, it's conceivable that the result of such referenda could, in some cases, be "no." So it's time to think the unthinkable, namely, that some of the candidates may not join the EU, despite the years of effort invested in seeking membership.

The issue should not be exaggerated, of course. A survey carried out by the European Commission and released in December found that, on average, six out of 10 people across all of the 13 candidate countries believe membership would be a "good thing." But the general figures mask sharp regional differences. For instance, only 33 percent of those questioned in Estonia and Latvia supported membership, and the figures were not much better in Lithuania and Slovenia.

Estonian media commentator Tarmu Tammerk said the latest opinion polls, taken last month, indicate that a higher proportion of people supports membership than opposes it, but there are many who have yet to weigh in with an opinion. "It's largely the big group of [presently] undecided people who hold the key to what will happen [in the referendum]," Tammerk said.

Tammerk said the recently installed Estonian government now has an active campaign to popularize the prospect of EU membership. He said the unpopularity of the previous government tarnished the pro-EU cause.

In neighboring Latvia, public-opinion-survey specialist Aigars Freimanis also sees the unpopularity of local politicians as a complicating factor. "The politicians say that for everyone, everything will be better [in the EU], but this statement doesn't produce results because people do not trust the politicians themselves [and] also do not trust what they're saying," Freimanis said.

But the relative unpopularity of local politicians cannot alone explain the level of public skepticism toward joining the EU. In the Baltic states, in particular, analysts see many people with doubts about ceding so much national sovereignty to a supranational organization like the EU.

Though the EU is a voluntary union among democratic states, the accession countries have only recently escaped from Soviet control, and many citizens are wary of giving away part of their independence so soon. Another major factor is the bad publicity over the membership terms offered by the EU.

Pro-EU circles point out that new members of the EU have done well in the past. Take the case of Spain, a poor country that joined the EU in 1986. It has seen its average national income rise to 84 percent of the EU average, from 75 percent seven years ago.

This time, however, things look more complicated. The coming expansion is the biggest ever undertaken by the EU in a single stroke. The expense of enlargement is weighing heavily on the minds of the present members, and the fact that the membership terms being offered are not as generous as the newcomers seek adds another complication.

A key issue is agriculture, especially the level of subsidy payments the EU will make to new members. Poland, in particular, has bitterly criticized the European Commission's suggestion that Eastern farmers initially receive only 25 percent of the support payments paid to Western farmers.

Polish analyst Aleksander Smolar, the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw, said the difficulty of continuing negotiations over agriculture and other subjects will probably generate more ill feelings. But he said that if a referendum in Poland were to fail, the most probable grounds would not be anti-EU sentiment but the difficulty of obtaining sufficient voter turnout. "The danger is that there would be insufficient participation in the referendum, and for a referendum to be valid at least 50 percent of the population must participate. And here, previous experiences with referendums in Poland were not the most encouraging. People were not very motivated to participate," Smolar said.

In fact, the technical requirements for winning a referendum can themselves form a barrier to acceptance of the proposal. For instance, Lithuania is adopting complicated new rules under which a vote will be valid only if more than 50 percent of all eligible voters participate. In addition, at least 50 percent of those participating, but no less than one-third of all eligible voters, must support the proposal.

The Czech Republic is another candidate country where current support for the EU amounts to less than half the voting population. But Prague-based analyst Petr Drulak of the Czech Institute of International Relations said he nevertheless expects a positive outcome in a referendum. "If you look at the opinion polls, of course, you can see that the number of people who accept the EU membership without reservations is less than half. But you also have to look at the number of people who oppose, and this is some 20 percent. So there are many people undecided, and I see no reason why all the undecideds should decide [in a referendum] to reject the European Union," Drulak said.

But Drulak cautioned that this depends on there being no major crisis developing between Prague and Brussels. And he said the new Czech government needs to be active in securing public support. "I would expect our political leaders to deal with the European Union much more intensively than they have done so far," Drulak said.

In Hungary -- one of the foremost EU candidates -- analyst Pal Tamas of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences said EU membership is not an issue at all. He said opinion polls indicate two-thirds of the population supports membership. He added that all major political parties, social organizations, and churches are in favor of it. "Except for a few important, but very marginal, radical right-wing parties and very small left-wing groups that are against it -- they're absolutely marginal -- and because they oppose it, the average citizen understands that only the marginal are against it, and [therefore] he, [the citizen], is in favor of it," Tamas said.

The referenda in the candidate countries will take place in the course of next year, although firm dates are mostly not yet set.