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EU: Membership Support Up In Many, But Not All, Candidate States

A survey published on 21 August shows support for European Union membership is on the rise in most candidate countries -- with Romania at the top of the list with almost 80 percent support. But the survey, conducted by a Central European polling agency, also reveals that support over the past year has dropped in some candidate states -- including Estonia, where EU opponents now outnumber supporters. Analysts say that both the EU and candidate governments must do more to prevent a rise in Euroskepticism ahead of the first expected wave of entry in 2004.

Prague, 23 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A regional poll published has shown that public backing for European Union membership is on the rise this year in a majority of the 12 candidate states.

The survey, conducted in April and May by GfK Hungaria -- the Hungarian branch of the German market research giant GfK Group -- was based on interviews with 1,000 people in each candidate country plus Turkey representing a cross-section of the adult population. The GfK surveys are being repeated every six months.

According to the poll's findings, Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey -- which is not yet an official candidate country -- enjoy the highest rates of support for EU membership, more than 70 percent.

The EU is less popular in other candidate countries, however, and in some cases has even seen negative growth over the past year. Countries like the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Baltic states Latvia and Estonia have the lowest number of EU supporters.

Erno Bajai, a spokesman for GfK Hungaria, described the results of the survey, which asked interviewees the question: "How would you vote if a referendum were held now on EU accession?"

"The most 'yes' voters were in May this year in Romania -- 78 percent said yes and 7 percent said no. The same time last year the figure was 83 percent, so it means there has been a small decline. The lowest figure is in Estonia. This is the only [candidate] country where there are more 'no' voters than 'yes' voters, because 36 percent are against [EU] entry and 35 are for it," Bajai said.

Bajai added that Hungary, which came in sixth place, has seen a significant increase in support of EU membership -- 66 percent compared to 54 in 2001. Support in Slovakia was 63 percent.

In Poland, the largest of the 12 official candidate countries, EU support rose to 49 from 44 percent in 2001. The number of Poles opposed to EU membership dropped accordingly, from 33 percent to 24 percent in the most recent poll.

In Lithuania and Malta, roughly half of the population support EU membership.

But elsewhere -- namely, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Latvia -- EU membership support is continuing to shrink.

In the Czech Republic, support for accession dropped from 42 to 41 percent, while in Slovenia that figure dropped from 42 to 40 percent. In Latvia, the drop was even more dramatic, from 46 to 39 percent.

Analysts say these most recent findings -- which largely reflect last year's EU "Eurobarometer" survey -- show a so-called "inverse correlation" between a country's application status and public support for EU membership.

That is, the closer a country gets to EU accession, the less its population is likely to support the move.

Heather Grabbe is an EU enlargement expert with the London-based Centre for European Reform. She said one explanation for this "inverse correlation" could be that the more people learn about the EU, the more they become aware of membership responsibilities and costs.

Grabbe told RFE/RL there are two possible explanations why support, conversely, remains high in countries like Bulgaria and Romania, which have no immediate hope of joining the 15-nation bloc: "It's interesting how the correlation is still that countries which are very far away from membership, particularly Romania, have remained very high [in EU membership support rates]. I think that has a lot to do with two things: one is the perception of Europe as being an answer to many of the challenges -- the difficult issues that a country faces and has faced for the past 10 years or so -- but also it's because they perceive the EU as an answer from outside, perhaps somebody coming in who can sort out the problems in your country which various governments have failed to solve. And the other thing is that the EU still feels very remote. There's actually very widespread ignorance about the EU, and that has an impact too: If people don't know very much about it, they tend to like the idea of joining more."

Western analysts have warned that despite the high rate of public approval for EU membership in Romania, Bucharest's rushed signing of a bilateral agreement earlier this month pledging not to turn over U.S. personnel to the new International Criminal Court (ICC) may have damaged the Balkan country's future chances of becoming a EU member.

The EU and the United States have been at loggerheads over Washington's demand to have its citizens exempted from ICC prosecution. So far, only Romania, Israel, and Colombia have signed bilateral agreements with Washington to exempt U.S. citizens from ICC prosecution.

Indeed, Romania's move drew harsh criticism from Brussels, with EU enlargement spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori calling it a "bad political signal." Filori said the EU had expected Romania to "coordinate" with Brussels on the issue.

Analyst Grabbe, however, said that in the long run, the EU will be more preoccupied by Romania's economic performances than by its siding with the U.S. over the ICC issue: "Well, it's done Romania's image in the EU some harm, but Romanians have long been very Atlanticist, and very much in favor of the U.S. role in the region. I think in the longer term it'll die down, because it will be seen as less important by the EU than Romania's progress in reforming its economy and implementing the rest of the acquis communautaire [body of EU laws]."

Some commentators believe the low support for EU membership in the Baltic countries, Slovenia, and even the Czech Republic can be explained by the fact that they have only recently become independent entities.

Analyst Grabbe agreed that ordinary people in such countries -- and especially in the Baltic states -- may be reluctant to accept what they see as another loss of their independence.

But Grabbe stressed that the political elite in those countries remain strongly pro-EU: "Well, for the new countries it is a big challenge to join the European Union because they've only just managed to regain their identity. And there have been people who have claimed 'Oh, well, joining the EU is like joining the Soviet Union again -- from the Soviet Union to the European Union. We don't just want to replace Moscow with Brussels.' But yes, I think it has something to do with the fact that these are new countries, but particularly countries which had been part of a union, have been involuntary members, coerced members of the Soviet Union. Yes, it has an impact, but on the whole, the political elite [in these countries] is very much in favor of joining [the EU]. So it's really a distinction between the elite and the masses which has a lot to do with it here."

Grabbe also said the EU and candidate countries alike must do much more to reassure people that joining the continental bloc is meant to be of benefit to all its members, and not only for "the rich, for the political elite, or for the current member states."