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  Vol. 11, No. 3, 2003
Not Just Another Referendum

The country says a clear “I do” to the European Union

Ramūnas Vilpišauskas

The weekend of 10 and 11 May 2003 is likely to go down in Lithuanian history as an important date. Those were the two days when the people voted on whether to join the European Union or not.

It should be noted that this was not the first referendum to be organised in Lithuania since the reestablishment of independence in the early 1990s. There have been eight referendums over these years.

However, according to most policymakers, it was one of the most important ones, and comparable to that on the reestab-lishment of independence.

According to law, a referendum on joining an organisation such as the EU is mandatory for the country’s policymakers. This is one of the differences between the referendum that was held in Lithuania and those organised in some other candidate countries.

Another important difference was the turnout necessary for the result to be valid.

In Lithuania, the minimum turnout is 50 per cent of all eligible voters. It was even higher before, but was reduced at the beginning of the year in view of this referendum. It is due to low turnouts that some referendums in Lithuania have failed.

Therefore, most of the referendum campaign was aimed at persuading the 2.6 million people who are registered as voters to come and cast their vote. It was turnout rather than voting patterns that worried the politicians.


BETTER THAN EXPECTED

There was some tension on the first day of voting, when only 23 per cent of the electorate turned out to express their opinion.

However, by the middle of the second day, the situation had started changing. (The fact that for the first time a referendum was taking place over two days rather than one was also due to the concerns about a low turnout.) Early in the afternoon the turnout figure reached 50 per cent, and it kept growing, to reach the final 63.7 per cent, or 1,672,317 votes.

The actual outcome of the vote was even more positive. Overall, 89.95 per cent, or 1,504,264, of all votes cast, were for joining the EU.

These results exceeded the expectations of many euro-optimists, and were greeted with enthusiasm by the country’s politicians and the heads of the European Commission and other candidate countries. All the major political parties in Lithuania, those in government and opposition alike, congratulated the people on the result which, as the leaders stated, shows that the Lithuanian nation has said a clear “yes” to the strengthening of its sovereignty by joining the family of European democracies. This event was the first since the reestab-lishment of independence to see all the main political forces united.
The results of the referendum were also welcomed by the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, who said that the people had made a decision of historical importance, and expressed his conviction that “this was the right decision.”

He also added that the highly positive results of the referendum will strengthen Lithuania’s voice in the EU. His statements were echoed by the commissioner Günter Ver-heugen, who welcomed Lithuania into the EU and said he expected a positive input from the country in EU political processes.

The results did not go unnoticed by neighbouring countries, in particular Poland, Latvia and Estonia, which are still planning to hold referendums later this year.

The Polish president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, sent a message to the Lithuanian president, Rolandas Paksas, and expressed his hope that “our countries will live in a united Europe.”

The Latvian president, Vaira Vyke-Freiberga, called the results “far-sighted”, and expressed her hope that they “will become an example for Latvian voters”, who are going to cast their vote in September.

In general, the overall hopes of neighbouring countries and EU leaders are that the results of the referendum will have a positive impact on voting patterns in neighbouring countries, which, according to opinion polls, are more euro-sceptical.

This can be said in particular about Estonia and Latvia, whose populations show the lowest numbers of supporters among all candidate countries. While the forecasts for Poland are somewhat more optimistic, due to the 50 per cent threshold the outcome of the referendum to be held there can also not be taken for granted.


IN, BUT NOT WITH A VOICE

While the EU Accession Treaty is still being ratified (by referendums in most candidate countries, and by parliamentary votes in member states and the European Parliament), the candidate countries have already become a part of the EU policy-making process.

First, the conclusion of negotiations on the terms of accession in December 2002 and the drafting of the Accession Treaty were the focus of attention. Even before then, representatives of candidate country parliaments or governments had participated in the Convention on the Future of Europe.

However, the biggest step came with the signing of the Accession Treaty in Athens on 16 April, which turned out to be a major event, attended by heads of state and the governments of all 25 current and future member states.

In Lithuania, the signing of the Accession Treaty received a lot of publicity as an event of historical importance, and to some extent as a part of the referendum information campaign.

However, what has not been so publicly evident but is equally important is that since 16 April 2003, candidate countries have been taking part in meetings of EU institutions. For example, a meeting of foreign ministers of the 25 countries took place at the end of April. In early May, the economy and finance ministers of member states and acceding countries gathered to discuss the EU budget for 2004, joint economic policy guidelines for 2003 to 2005, taxation, and other issues.

Although the representatives of the acceding countries still do not have the right to vote, and can only observe and express the positions of their countries in the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament, participation in these institutions will be a valuable experience before becoming members in May 2004.

But before actual accession takes place, and before acceding countries of Central and Eastern Europe gain all the rights of membership, the ratification procedures still have to be completed in other acceding countries (so far, only Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia and Lithuania have held referendums).

Besides, in the autumn of 2003 the European Commission is to present monitoring reports on each acceding country, in which it will evaluate the progress in implementing EU norms. Acceding countries will have to do their homework not only in implementing current norms, but also by participating in debates on new ones which are being suggested by the Commission.

Finally, accession is taking place amidst important reform of the EU itself, and therefore the new member states will have to be well prepared to take a constructive part in the Intergovernmental Conference in 2004 which will decide the future shape of the Union.

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