17/05/2003 - D-7
"The Slovaks are today probably facing the most important choice they have had to make since their country's independence," declared Günther Verheugen on 5th May during his visit to Bratislava. "This choice is essential for your own future but also for that of your children and grandchildren; this is why it is primordial for each of you to vote on 16th and 17th May," he added.
Just a day or so from the referendum, Slovak support for their country's European integration is still high: the last opinion poll undertaken by the Bureau for Cultural Research and Public Opinion (UVKVM) at the start of May revealed that 77.2% of the population would vote in favour of integration versus 9% against. However there is a major uncertainty weighing on the Slovak participation level in this election, that will only be declared valid if half of those registered to vote go and do so. At present only 42% of the population say they are sure they will vote on 16th and 17th May (versus 73% in March), i.e. a level lower than the minimum required by electoral law. This figure is all the more worrying since the real participation rate is always lower than pre-electoral estimations - as seen during Hungary's European membership referendum where the participation rate reached 45.6% whilst all opinion polls had forecast around 60% of Hungarians going to the ballot box.
The invalidation of the referendum would not however close the door to Europe to the Slovaks forever. The country's membership would be submitted to a vote by the National Council of the Republic, the only Chamber in Slovak Parliament, and would have to be voted in by two thirds of MP's. Since all of the political parties represented in Parliament are in favour of integration, Slovakia's membership would therefore more than likely be approved. However the popular referendum's failure would comprise a severe rejection for the ruling government coalition and would certainly lead to a political crisis. Slovakia's European integration has been the main objective of Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's party, the Slovak Democratic and Slovak Union (SDKU), since its accession to power in 1998. The president of the opposition party Smer (Direction), Robert Fico, recently headed a movement that aims to force the government to resign if the referendum fails. "If the referendum fails the government that organised it will have to bear the consequences by resigning," he declared, also saying that he did not want new general elections to be organised.
The election campaign was marked by Pat Cox, the President of the European Parliament's visit on 6th and 7th May to Bratislava. "We approved Slovakia's candidature by a very wide majority. Our message is as follows: we want you to be one of us," he declared, adding, "my country, Ireland lost nothing by joining the European Union; on the contrary it drew off many advantages. Today Slovakia has the opportunity of being able to live the same fabulous experience." For his part Mikulas Dzurinda also emphasised the advantages of European membership for Slovakia: "The country will be safer and less arbitrary and the employment situation will improve. Not that I necessarily want young Slovaks to go abroad, but some of them will nevertheless have the opportunity of taking up some interesting posts in other Union countries." Whilst visiting high schools in the East of the country he also asked the children to persuade their parents and grandparents to go and vote on 16th and 17th May. When he was questioned on the economic differences that exist in the different regions of the country, Mikulas Dzurinda insisted on the fact that the European structural funds would be of great help in the construction of a motorway linking the capital Bratislava in the west to the eastern part of Slovakia, enabling the opening up of this region that suffers a delay in development in comparison with the rest of the country.
Pal Csaky, Deputy-Prime Minister for European Integration, who is responsible for the government's electoral campaign for this referendum went to Kosice the country's second biggest town where his meeting only managed to attract 120 people. According to the region's governor, Michal Ilka, the lack of public interest can be explained by the fact that until now the region had received very little of the European Union aid granted to Slovakia. The regional authorities are working however towards improving this situation and have created a regional agency to collect funds and put together real development projects. For his part Pal Csaky has promised that the government would appoint 400 experts in order to help set up projects eligible to receive financing from the EU's structural funds.
Finally we should indicate that like all the political movements and unions in the country, the Slovak churches (Catholic and Protestant) have also said they are in favour of their country joining the European Union.
The Slovak government should continue its information campaign on the EU after this referendum. A budget of 20 million Slovak Crowns (478,000 euros) have been set aside to this effect. But in the immediate future however it is the priority all political players to make a success of this popular referendum and convince a majority of the population, who are widely in favour of their country's European membership, to go and vote.