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EU: Hungary Copes With Falling Support For Membership Ahead Of Referendum (Part 1)

Voters in eight countries in Central Europe and the Baltics go to the polls this year to ratify their countries' 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 first part, RFE/RL takes a look at Central Europe, where EU showcase Hungary finds support for the EU among its citizens dropping.

Prague, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Eight former communist countries, including five in Central Europe, are due to hold referenda this year on joining the European Union. Of the five Central European candidates -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia -- the Slovenians are the first to go to the polls on 23 March. They will be followed by the Hungarians on 12 April. The Slovaks and Czechs are set to vote on EU membership on 16-17 May and 15-16 June, respectively. The Poles will vote either in the spring or later in the year.

European Union membership has been one of the main goals for the region's governments ever since the collapse of communism. Public support for EU membership differs from country to country, but a majority in all five favors joining the EU.

One of the showcase countries was supposed to have been Hungary. The country's traditional commitment to EU entry and its relatively strong economy were to have bolstered popular support.

But officials in Budapest, surprisingly, find themselves coping with falling support. EU approval rates have dropped from almost 70 percent in June last year to 56 percent last month.

The downturn comes as Hungary's socialist-led government has launched a campaign to raise public support for EU membership ahead of the nonbinding referendum on 12 April.

The campaign, costing almost $9 million, kicked off on 24 February after several months of preparation.

Tibor Palankai, the head of the public fund that manages the campaign, told RFE/RL that it mainly features television ads and phone hot lines to answer questions from the public regarding EU membership. "We set up a call center, and the call center has been working since last week, and the citizens can ask any question, and either immediately or with some delay they get some answer. Then we support the media, and the media makes certain ads, or 'reklam,' for EU membership with such questions as, 'Can you open a shop in Vienna?' or so. These are short questions, and the answer is 'yes,' and [the ad] is [repeatedly] shown on television," Palankai said.

Palankai said the fund has already sent letters to most of Hungary's 3.8 million households, urging them to ask questions about the pros and cons of membership. He said the response has been strong, with some 40,000 questions being asked daily.

The exact reasons for the downturn are unclear, but Hungarian officials tend to blame the opposition FIDESZ party for raising what they say are "naive" questions about the EU.

Robert Wright, a Budapest-based correspondent for the "Financial Times," agreed that FIDESZ and former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who narrowly lost a bitterly fought election last year, have had a negative influence on public opinion.

Wright told RFE/RL: "The reason, as I see it, essentially, would be that Viktor Orban, the former prime minister, has been sounding decidedly 'Euro-skeptical' [opposed to EU entry] over the last little while. Now he and people from his party, FIDESZ, claim they are not Euro-skeptical, [but that] they are 'Euro-realists.' But, whatever the actual technicalities of what they are saying, they are tending to draw far more attention to the negative side of the EU than to the positive side," Wright said.

Wright said that, nevertheless, the EU referendum is likely to pass with a comfortable majority.

EU-enlargement expert Kirsty Hughes of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies told RFE/RL that a decline in the polls was to be expected. She said that because accession negotiations were concluded at the Copenhagen summit, "enlargement and accession [are] now a reality." Thus, the citizens of EU candidate countries are thinking about the prospect more "and looking at the details. They're not just thinking about the big picture -- 'Do we want to be part of modern Europe?.' They are saying, 'What do you think about this very specific set of a huge number of changes?'"

She said it's not surprising in this context that support, once as high as 70 percent in some countries, has begun to fall somewhat.

European Commission President Romano Prodi this week urged Hungarians to turn out in full for the referendum.

Approval rates for EU membership in another successful EU candidate country, Slovenia, have been lower than in Hungary, but steadily over 60 percent.

Slovenians, who enjoy a monthly per capita income of some $1,000, the highest among ex-communist EU candidates, are the first to vote on membership, on 23 March, in a nonbinding referendum.

In November last year, Slovenia was also invited to join NATO, and the referendum will contain questions on both EU and NATO membership.

Support for NATO membership, which has always been rather moderate, has dropped considerably to some 37 percent.

But Matjaz Kek, head of the European Affairs Department in the Slovenian government, told RFE/RL that a "yes" vote for EU membership is unlikely to be influenced by the less popular issue of NATO integration.

Kek said that more than a quarter of the population is still undecided on the NATO issue, which could change the outcome of the vote on membership in the alliance.

Slovaks and Czechs will both vote on EU membership in legally binding referenda.

While Slovakia currently enjoys the highest rate of approval for EU membership, almost 80 percent, its constitution provides for referenda to be validated only if more than 50 percent of voters participate.

But despite a history of failed referenda during its decade-long existence, Slovak officials do not appear set to change this rule, since opinion polls show that almost 80 percent of voters would take part in the referendum.

In the neighboring Czech Republic, which has been traditionally more Euro-skeptical, the percentage of those who would vote "yes" in the 15-16 June referendum has grown from roughly 50 percent last year to 59 percent currently.