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Malta: Referendum Sets Positive Tone For EU Expansion Process

The Mediterranean island state of Malta has voted in a referendum in favor of joining the European Union. Citizens approved EU membership starting next year by a fair margin in the weekend vote. Malta is the first of nine candidate countries to hold a referendum on the issue. In the case of some of the other candidates, however, getting a "yes" result may be more difficult.

Prague, 10 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Malta has approved joining the European Union in the first of a series of referendums that will take place in EU candidate countries.

The "yes" outcome sets a positive tone for the expansion process, which is now entering its final phase. Eight of the other candidates, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, will be holding similar referendums in the coming months. The exception is the divided island of Cyprus, which in view of its complicated political situation has decided not to hold a popular vote on the issue.

Jubilant EU leaders welcomed the successful vote in Malta. European Commission President Romano Prodi said the Maltese "yes" represents a choice for stability and growth and for the peaceful unification of Europe.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the vote marks a "successful start" to the EU membership votes.

Malta's Prime Minister Eddie Fenech-Adami said the result shows the "strong will of the Maltese people to join Europe." The vote succeeded by almost 54 percent of voters to just over 46 percent -- not a close result, but one which nevertheless shows a solid level of opposition to membership in the community.

Malta's opposition Labour Party leader, Alfred Sant, who opposes EU membership, is refusing to concede defeat. He had called on Maltese to boycott the referendum -- a call which they largely ignored.

Sant argues that the number of positive votes cast means that only 48 percent of the country's total electorate actually said "yes" -- which he characterized as not enough. He urged the prime minister to call a general election for next month, and Fenech-Adami is widely expected to do just that.

Vanessa Macdonald, news editor at "The Times" newspaper in the capital, Valletta, says the opposition is portraying the results as a type of victory for the "no" side. Macdonald describes the scene after the results became known.

"They [the opposition] are counting all the people who did not go out to vote as having supported their ['no'] stand," she said. "They are now celebrating victory themselves, so we have both sides doing that now -- one saying we won 53 percent of the valid votes, and the Labour Party is saying they only got 48 percent of all the [eligible] voters."

Macdonald does not accept the opposition's reasoning on this point: "The majority of people voted 'yes.' The reply is 'yes,' you know, but the Labour Party has to find some face-saving measure, and this obviously is their way of doing it."

So, barring complications which could arise if Sant wins the likely coming election, Malta has set the ball rolling on the EU expansion approval process. Next comes Slovenia, with a referendum set for 23 March, then Hungary on 12 April. They are expected to go in the EU's favor also.

But not all the referendums might be as simple as that. Public opinion surveys show low acceptance of the EU in, for instance, Estonia, while Poland could be also a problem.

Poland, by far the biggest candidate, is going through a prolonged economic downturn and has an active anti-EU lobby. The result? Growing public confusion on the issue of whether to join the EU.

Alexander Smolar, the head of the Stefan Batory Foundation, a Warsaw research institute, says achieving sufficient turnout in conditions of low morale may be difficult.

Another senior analyst, Peter Zervakis of the Bonn-based ZEI think tank, says it's natural that Poles, like many other Easterners, are uncertain. He says they want to share in Western prosperity, but at the same time they also fear the changes coming upon them: "There has always been a kind of expressed fear to join something unknown, something unusual, something which for local people is unusual, to join a community which actually transforms the nation state."

The EU authorities and the governments of most of the candidate states are conducting media campaigns to popularize the EU ahead of the votes. As the referendums unfold during the summer and into the autumn, the extent of their success will become evident.

(Villu Arak of RFE/RL's Estonian Service contributed to this report.)