12/04/2003 - Analysis
"Do you accept that Hungary is to become a member of the European Union?" This is the question that the Hungarians will have to answer on 12th April. Although the referendum is not a constitutional obligation, the result of the vote will however be decisive. Several times the Prime Minister, Peter Medgyessy (Socialist Party, MSZP) has emphasised that popular support was absolutely necessary for him to be able to sign the membership treaty. Initially the government chose 15th March as the date for the vote, the anniversary of the 1848 independence from the Habsbourg Empire. This date was rejected by the opposition that wanted the referendum to take place after the signing of the EU membership treaty, planned for 16th April in Athens. Since Peter Medgyessy refused to give in on this point, that is essential in his opinion, the vote will take place on 12th April.
Hungary was the first country in Central Europe to request EU membership in 1994. Membership negotiations with Brussels started in the Spring of 1998. One year later the European Commission declared that Hungary met the criteria defined during the European Council in Copenhagen in June 1993. These criteria stipulate that all new members must have a stable democratic regime that guarantees the primacy of law, human rights, the respect of minorities as well as their protection; the possession of a market economy with the ability to face economic competition and market forces in the economic and monetary Union and finally they must be prepared to take up the community acquis on their entry to the Union, ie respect all the Union treaties and be equipped with a legal and administrative system that allows for their application.
Hungary has one of the most open economies in Central Europe. The EU represents at present nearly 75% of the country's exports versus 30% in 1990. In addition to this since 1990 Hungary has received around 40% of all foreign investments in Central and Eastern Europe enabling the country to achieve high growth in the GDP (+ 3,8% in 2001). Unemployment lay at 6.5% in that year and inflation (9.2% in 2001) is constantly on the decline. Foreign debt and the budgetary deficit are close the Maastricht criteria.
The present government decided to modify the law on the status of Hungarian expatriates (adopted in 2001) in order to end the arguments with its neighbours, particularly Slovakia and Romania where there largest Magyar minorities live. This law grants special rights (access to the health system, free university education, the right to work legally in Hungary for three months) to the Magyar minorities living in the neighbouring countries, ie around three and a half million people, half of whom are in Romania. The neighbouring countries felt that this law, that was adopted to avoid a massive influx of Hungarians from abroad as the country's entry into the EU in 2004 came nearer, encroached on their own sovereignty.
The electoral campaign
"The choice is a simple one: either we remain isolated in a type of no-man's land or we join the victors' camp", declared Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy in November during a speech given to Parliament adding "today our task is to cross the bridge that leads our national history towards a European future". For this referendum, the government launched an unprecedented information campaign sending out a letter from the Public Foundation for Communication to four million Hungarian households about the EU and talking about the advantages and expected changes that European integration was to bring. This letter invited the population to express itself by letter or telephone on this question. "We aim to make the question of European integration a personal affair for everyone", declared Tibor Palankai, president of the Foundation. As proof of the population's interest the Foundation received half a million letters and nearly 30,000 telephone calls. The questions asked concerned the standard of life, employment, the future of the social security system, the national currency and the tax system. The Internet site created specifically for this (www.euint.hu/cgi-bin/cikk.cgi) provides everyone with all the official documents on the relations between Hungary and the EU (membership treaty, speeches of all the politicians on integration, Union activities in the country over the last ten years) and a great number of information about the Fifteen and the other candidate countries.
Contrary to the Slovenian leaders the Hungarian government chose to plaster the walls with posters calling to vote "yes" to European integration. Advertisements were broadcast in the media and nearly 200 debates will be organised in companies until the end of March. All types of possible games to play on the Internet or to participate in by SMS with a mobile phone were invented for young people. Even school children were not forgotten: colleges and high schools across the country organised inter-establishment games about the EU. Finally public debates will be held across the country between 6th March and 12th April under the slogan of "Let's give each and everyone of us the chance to express himself". Former President Arpad Göncz chaired the first debate and the series will be concluded by the present President Ferenc Madl. The cost of this campaign has risen to over 6 million euros.
All of the major Hungarian political movements are in favour of the country joining the EU. Only the extreme rightwing movements have called on the electorate to vote "no" to the referendum on 12th April next (MOEP, Party for Justice and Hungarian Life).
The latest opinion polls forecast the "yes" vote with a landslide victory with 59% of the vote according to the Gallup Institute and 56% according to the Szonda Ipsos Institute both polls being undertaken mid-February. The "no" vote assembles 20% of the electorate and 21% are still undecided. Hungary has always been the country the most in favour of joining the EU. In 2002 the country was, amongst the ten other candidate countries, the one to be most confident in the Union (76% in favour) and its institutions (53% in favour of the European Parliament, 42% for the Commission). Hungary was also the country with the most positive image of the EU (59%) according to the Eurobarometer survey in Spring 2002. In December 2002, 71% of the Hungarians said they were in favour of their country joining Europe; there were 67% in January this year. Although the figures have dropped slightly one month before the referendum Hungarian support for European integration is still the highest amongst all the candidate countries.
On 17th December Hungary modified its constitution in order to enable the transfer of part of its sovereignty over to the EU after membership on 1st May 2004. Although this seems almost be have been won the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi insisted on reminding the Hungarians on 27th February during his visit to Budapest that no election should be considered won ahead of time. To local representatives who gathered in the capital he confirmed that the Hungarian economy had a strong infrastructure and a qualified work force and was equipped to face the competition from the West: "You should tell the population that not only should they ask themselves what the Union will bring them but what they can give to Europe". "We shall never forget that the Hungarians were the first to have opened the Iron Curtain in July 1989", he said reassuringly at the end of his speech.