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EU: Balts Not Taking A 'Yes' For Granted In Referenda (Part 2)

Voters in eight countries in Central Europe and the Baltics go to the polls this year to ratify their country's entry into the European Union. Support for the EU remains high in all of the countries, yet officials are not taking a "yes" vote for granted. In a two-part series on the upcoming referenda, we take a look at how countries are preparing for a vote that will shape their destinies, one way or another, for decades to come. In this second part, RFE/RL looks at the special case of the three Baltic states, European Union candidates that were only recently part of another union: the Soviet Union.

Prague, 27 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Support for membership in the European Union remains strong in all three Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Voters will have a chance to prove that strength later this year in referenda on EU membership.

In spite of the strong support, however, governments are not taking a "yes" vote for granted. In some cases, they are even changing their laws on referenda to influence the vote positively.

In Lithuania, officials have altered the law to drop a clause saying that one-third of all of the country's voters had to vote "yes" to adopt a decision. The law now requires a "yes" vote from only a simple majority of those casting ballots. A referendum is valid only if more than 50 percent of registered voters take part.

The changes also allow the polls to be kept open for two days, a move that will increase turnout. The referendum is likely to happen in the middle of May.

Petras Austrevicius, the Lithuanian chief negotiator with the EU, said voters are often indifferent, which brings a measure of uncertainty to the results. In recent presidential elections in January, for example, turnout was just 52 percent. "There are no signs that voters will become more active in the future," he said. "If the referendum does not succeed because of voter apathy, it would be a most serious defeat [for Lithuanian foreign policy]."

Andrius Kubilius, a member of the Lithuanian parliamentary committee on European affairs, agreed. He said that before the changes Lithuania had the strictest referendum law of all the candidate countries. "There were loopholes left in the referendum law, and we changed them because, in comparison with the other EU candidates, our law set the most difficult conditions [for obtaining a 'yes' vote,]" Kubilius said.

A recent poll by the Vilmorus market-research company in Vilnius suggests that support for the EU is holding steady at around 64 of the population. Support for the EU membership is slightly lower in neighboring Latvia, which will hold its referendum in September.

Aigars Freimanis, director of Latvia's Fakti polling agency, said that, as of last month, around 58 percent of all Latvians say they will vote "yes" in the referendum, while 29 percent are against EU accession.

Nevertheless, Solvita Mellupe, the chair of the Latvian parliamentary committee on legal affairs, told RFE/RL that parliament is mulling constitutional changes that will make passage of a referendum easier.

According to the current law, a referendum is considered valid if more than 50 percent of all eligible voters support it. One change being considered would be to lower this to more than 35 percent of eligible voters.

Mellupe said the constitutional changes have an additional function. They would make it easier, in theory, for Latvia to leave the EU if it should so choose. "The constitutional changes are made not only because of the referendum [on EU membership]," she said. "Joining the EU is not as simple as just voting in the referendum."

She said the constitution should be amended to contain a mechanism allowing Latvia to leave the union if it were not happy being a member. These changes should allow Latvia to leave the EU as easily as it will enter it.

Latvians, once citizens of the Soviet Union, remember well the disadvantages of living within a large "union." Politicians would feel more secure if the doors to leave the EU were theoretically left open.

Estonians will vote on the EU accession on 14 September. A survey carried out by the Estonian polling organization Emor last November showed that 57 percent of Estonians were in favor of the EU membership.

The head of the Secretariat of the Constitutional Committee of the Estonian parliament, Ulle Madise, told RFE/RL that there is no need for any amendments to make a "yes" vote more likely.

She said Estonia doesn't need amendments because it has no quorum required for attendance. She said the vote will take place "even if 20 percent of people who have the right to vote attend the referendum."

However, Madise also said that Estonians will amend the constitution with a paragraph saying that Estonia belongs to the EU only on the basis of the fundamental principles of the Estonian Constitution. This, in theory, will give Estonia the right to leave the EU.