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Hungary - Referendum on UE membership

Referendum on the European Union in Hungary 12th april 2003 a round a few days before the election

Referendum on the European Union in Hungary 12th april 2003 a round a few days before the election

12/04/2003 - D-7

The latest opinion polls confirm the support of the majority of Hungarians for their country's membership to the European Union. According to the most recent survey undertaken by the Gallup Institute published on 2nd April, 64% of the population say they are in favour of European integration, 16% are against and 20% are still undecided. Research companies forecast a participation level of around 65%. Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy (Socialist Party, MSZP) has also called on Hungarians to vote en masse on 12th April next maintaining that not only did the European Union need a massive "yes" but also the mobilisation of the great majority of Hungarians.

The government increased the pace of its campaign for membership over the last few days. A "bridge for Europe" symbolising "the crossing of Hungary over to the EU and the country's existing link with the Fifteen" according to Tibor Palankai, president of the Government Foundation for Communication on the EU, was built over the Danube in the centre of the Hungarian capital. This temporary piece of work (the construction was set up for a three day period) was inaugurated on 14th March by Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament.

A report by researchers from Ecostat was also put on line on the government internet site (www.euint.hu/cgi-bin/cikk.cgi) to better prepare Hungary for its entry into the EU. According to economists Hungary should reach the same standard of life as citizens in the Fifteen in 10 to 12 years time. Apart from the information and theories in favour of the country's integration the site also lays down the arguments and action undertaken by the Union's adversaries. Hence on 23rd March the political movements opposed to integration - the Hungarian Movement for the Protection of the Homeland, the Movement for a Free Hungary and finally the Movement for a Better Hungary - organised a conference in Budapest against the country joining. These parties believe that the enlargement of Europe can be likened to a true "enterprise of colonisation" by the Fifteen over the States of Central and Eastern Europe. Opponents to integration maintain that by choosing to enter the EU not only are these countries endangering their economy but they also are breaching their citizens' freedom and endangering their country's national sovereignty. Ernö Rozgonyi, leader of the Hungarian National Front, an extreme right wing movement that was recently born after breaking from the Justice and Life Party (MIEP), asserted that membership of the Union would transform Hungarians into "the slaves" of the Fifteen.

Some adversaries to integration say they are in favour of a free-exchange zone between the different countries of Central and Eastern Europe, that they believe can be built along the lines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. National history has been much called upon in this electoral campaign whether it be by those in favour or against membership. During the anniversary celebrations on 15th March of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 against the Habsburg Empire the latter demonstrated with banners claiming: "Petöfi would have voted 'no' to integration" (Sandor Petöfi was a poet and national Hungarian hero who led the youth of Pest on 15th March 1848. He is the famous author of the verse: "Arise, Hungarians, your mother country is calling you"). Just a few metres away at the foot of the poet's statue the mayor of Budapest, Gabor Demszky, declared: "One hundred and fifty years ago circumstances played against the Hungarian revolution but today Europe is with us and only we can decide whether we want to take advantage of this historic opportunity that is being offered to us. We are patriotic if we are loyal to our forefathers of 1848 and our principles and say a clear 'yes' to Europe".

The Justice and Life Party (MIEP) is against Hungary's membership of the EU. But since the last elections on 7th and 21st April 2002 it no longer has any seats in Parliament and the extreme rightwing movement has been campaigning for certain members to be appointed as observers during the referendum on 12th April (according to electoral law only parties represented in Parliament are allowed to supervise the vote). The party is accusing the government coalition of deceiving Hungarians and sacrificing the country's independence by accepting entry into a divided EU.

All of this virulence ought to have little influence on the Hungarian vote who mostly see membership to the EU as a return to economic prosperity and the guarantee of life in a stable democracy. "The EU will enable us to both share European values and defend our own national interests", declared Peter Medgyessy on 15th March. The day before this declaration by the Prime Minister, Pat Cox reminded the Hungarians that "Europe was waiting for them with open arms. Tomorrow (15th March) you will celebrate an historical day that changed the course of your history. In a few weeks time you will experience another similar moment - 12th April will change your destiny", he added.

Apart from the political community representatives of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Hungary also called on the Hungarians to vote in favour of joining the EU. For his part Arpad Göncz, former president of the Republic, recently suggested the European Union as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize that will be awarded at the end of 2003. Finally we should point out that since the referendum will take place on a Saturday the biggest Jewish organisation in Hungary, Mazsihisz, has requested Parliament to allow the election offices to be open beyond the planned timetable, ie until 8pm, so that practising Jews may accomplish their duty as citizens. Hungary has a population of around 90,000 Jews.

The only real "unknown" factor in this referendum lies in the size of the victory of the "yes" vote on 12th April. Will Hungarians be fighting it out with the Slovenians in terms of being the most pro-European?
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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