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Hungary: Referendum On EU Membership Scheduled For April 2003

Hungary will hold a referendum on European Union membership in April, one month later than it had originally announced. The government decided on the change after a meeting at which parliamentary parties also agreed on constitutional changes necessary before EU accession. Hungary, which enjoys the highest rate of public support for membership among the 10 EU candidate countries, is the first to announce such a referendum. Analysts say a favorable result would likely boost pro-EU feelings in other, more skeptical, candidate countries.

Prague, 3 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy has announced that Hungary will hold a referendum on European Union membership on 12 April. Medgyessy said the four parliamentary parties have signed an agreement on both the date of the referendum and the constitutional changes needed for Hungary to become an EU member. Hungary must amend its constitution to cede part of its legislative authority to the EU.

Medgyessy's Socialist-led coalition government first announced in October that it intended to hold a binding referendum on 15 March. But the conservative opposition argued that that date in March, which is also a national holiday, would not give Hungarians enough time to familiarize themselves with the EU's conditions for membership.

The government, which needs the support of the center-right opposition to amend the constitution, agreed to reconsider the date.

Hungary enjoys the highest rate of popular support for membership among the 10 EU candidates set to join in 2004, some 70 percent of its 10 million people. It will be the first candidate to hold a referendum on membership.

Analysts say an expected "yes" vote in Hungary could boost pro-EU feelings in other, more EU-skeptical, candidate states.

Heather Grabbe, an EU-enlargement expert with the London-based Centre for European Reform, said it is important that a country with a solid level of EU membership support will be the first country to have a referendum. "The sequencing of the different referenda is very important because if a country were to go ahead and have a referendum and win just by a small majority over the huge amount of anti-EU feeling, that could easily influence views in other countries. So it is important that Hungary goes first," Grabbe said.

Among the 10 candidates set to join the EU in 2004, support for membership has been stable or even on the rise recently, with Estonia the only country where opposition to EU membership is higher, at 36 percent, than support, which is at 35 percent.

Other countries where support for membership is low are Slovenia and the Czech Republic, with just over 40 percent of the public in favor, and Latvia, with just under 40 percent.

EU-enlargement analyst Alexandr Hobza of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies also believes a robust "yes" vote in Hungary could have a positive effect on the more Euroskeptic candidates. "I think this might somewhat work because, so far, I have a feeling people can't really imagine anything concrete behind the EU. And once this is the case in the Czech Republic, which is kind of traditionally more Euroskeptic than the others, or most of them, once they see that the other candidate countries are fully in favor of EU enlargement, they might be more inclined to say 'yes,'" Hobza said.

The Czech Republic has so far been the only other country to announce a precise date for a referendum on EU accession. The plebiscite will take place on 15-16 June next year, within 30 days after Prague signs an accession treaty with the EU.

The Czech referendum will not be binding, but in Hungary, Prime Minister Medgyessy said he wants a public mandate before signing the accession treaty in Athens on 16 April. Medgyessy on 2 December also insisted that copies of the 1,000-page accession treaty will be made available to Hungarian voters in February.

Poland, by far the most populous EU candidate, has yet to announce a date for a referendum. Poland has traditionally enjoyed a high rate of popular support for EU membership, at around 60 percent.

But recent difficulties in negotiations with the EU over the level of subsidies for Poland's large farming sector have given room to fears that support for membership may dwindle as negotiations draw to an end later this month.

Grabbe said that because of its size and importance, Poland is less likely to be influenced by the results of referenda in other candidate states. Grabbe told RFE/RL that Poles need to understand above all that EU membership is a good deal. "I think the key issue with Poland is for people to understand the benefits of EU enlargement. The major problem with public opinion at the moment is that this very last phase of negotiations, with the very acrimonious wrangling about the budget, has given many Poles the idea that joining the EU is a very bad deal. They don't know how much money they are going to get. All they know is that their farmers are going to get only a quarter of what French farmers get. So there's a stronger feeling of inequity. There have also been quite a lot of scary stories in the Polish press about Poland perhaps being a net contributor, which probably won't be the case. I think the key thing in Poland is that they understand that the deal for Poland is good. That's actually more important than the opinions of other countries, because Poland is so much bigger than the other candidates," Grabbe said.

Grabbe said that as the dates of accession approach, people are also learning about the less attractive conditions of EU membership and that public opinion in many countries is becoming less supportive of membership.

She said that in the absence of well-documented public debates, populist politicians are capitalizing on people's ignorance. "You can see across Central and Eastern Europe that populist politicians, particularly those on the far right and the far left, see an advantage in blaming the EU for problems that already exist and raising people's fears about problems that might exist in future. In fact, I think the impact will not be so great because these countries are largely integrated in the EU economically already and because their politicians will have a seat at the table, so they can influence the EU's future," Grabbe said.

But the problem is, Grabbe said, that nobody has explained to the public very well why enlargement will be beneficial to them, beyond the very broad arguments. She concluded that "much more specific" arguments in favor of enlargement are now needed.