14/06/2003 - D-7
Last week the Czechs received through the post documentation on the referendum on 13th and 14th June about their country's membership of the European Union. The electorate also received a brochure that explains what European integration means for their country, the various areas in question and the advantages that membership implies.
The final week of the electoral campaign will focus on the importance of taking part in the referendum. We should remember that unlike many countries (Poland or Slovakia for example), there is no minimum participation level in Czechia in order to validate the election. The only constraint applied for European integration to become effective is that the "yes" vote must rally at least 50% of the vote. If the referendum fails it will not be possible for the Czech Parliament to ratify membership as it is planned in Poland for example, and an election on the same subject would not organised for another two years.
The latest opinion polls forecast that 75% of Czechs will go and vote on 13th and 14th June but according to political analysts only 65% on the electoral role will fulfil their civic duty. Although a low participation rate would not endanger a favourable result it would however weaken popular support for the European Union and would comprise a setback for Vladimir Spilda's government (Social Democrat Party CSSD). Concern about the participation rate is all the more acute in Prague since a great many Czechs have spurned going to vote over the last few years: only 58% voted during the last general elections on 14th and 15th June 2002 versus 74% during the previous election on 19th and 20th June 1998. Many political leaders fear that the first referendum in the young Republic's history will mobilise a small part of the electorate only.
Several advertisements and posters representing, for example, a bow made from the European flag together with the words "Don't forget" or the photo of a clock in the Union colours reminding the electorate that everything depends on 13th and 14th June, have been designed to remind the Czechs of their citizen's duty.
Apart from the broadcast of information films, TV channels are also broadcasting several debates on Union membership together with personalities from Czech economic and cultural life who have been invited to say what they think about European integration. The President of the Republic Vaclav Klaus (Civic Democratic Party, ODS) recently qualified the advertisements that were being broadcast on the TV channels as "trivial". According to him these adverts would lead people to think that Czechia's membership of the European Union would be an event void of any meaning and importance. The President also believes that the political debate on integration was launched far too late.
Although the main opposition party, the Civic Democrat Party (ODS) officially committed itself in favour of membership its vice President Jan Zahradil is still sceptical. "The feeling of victory is not forthcoming, I can't imagine crowds of people in the streets celebrating the reunification of a divided Europe," the political leader declared. Like Vaclav Klaus he also expressed his opposition to any extension of the European Union, since he believes that peace and security can be ensured in Europe without the Union. In addition to this the Civic Democrat Party has declared its desire to have a second referendum after 13th and 14th June on the future European Constitution. Jan Zahradil pointed out that his movement would call for an election against the draft Constitution.
The Town Council in Prague refused to give the go-ahead for a concert that had been planned for the 10th June and organised within the framework electoral campaign for membership of the EU - an event that the former president Vaclav Havel was due to attend. Igor Nemec (ODS), a member of the Town Council and president of the Town Commission for the Co-ordination of Activities in Public Areas justified this refusal by mentioning the council's wish to reduce the number of gatherings and shows in this historical part of the town. The group "Yes to Europe" offered to organise the concert in Wenceslas Square.
Even though support for European integration has dropped slightly in the opinion polls over the last few weeks, both political analysts and leaders have no doubt that the majority of Czechs will vote in favour of joining the European Union.
During the 1st May celebrations the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) who are against membership distributed 120,000 tracts warning the population about the consequences of the country's entry into the European Union. The tract lists six major threats that will ensue from European integration including, amongst others, the danger of a drop in the standard of life for most of the population, the risk that certain regions will become the Union's backyard, as well as a more than probable rise in unemployment. "Many decisions will be taken in Brussels without any regard for the interests of Czechia. The project to federalise the European Union might lead to the liquidation of national sovereignty," maintains the text distributed by the communists.
An opinion poll undertaken by Eurochambers amongst company heads shows that 91% of them are in favour of Czechia joining the EU. Two-thirds of company heads (63%) say they are optimistic about the economic future of their country within the Union. However only 6% say they have been adequately informed about the present terms of membership, 14% of them believe that they have not had any information at all and 43% have not started preparing for their entry into the Single Market.
Finally the opinion polls reveal the population's fears about the country's future and its situation within the Union of 25. 49.1% of Czechs believe, for example, that their country's European integration will lead to the loss of their national identity, 11.8% believe the contrary and that in fact the latter will be strengthened.
On 29th May the President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox travelled to Prague where he took part in a debate at the Chamber of Representatives before visiting several of the country's regions in order to meet and reassure the Czechs. "The chance of being able to say "yes, but ..." does not exist. In joining the Union each country loses part of its sovereignty and yet it wins very much: enlargement is a mutual advantageous exchange," the European leader pointed out. The same day, Jacques Delors, former president of the European Commission (1985-1994), was also in the Czech capital where he met Vladimir Spilda, Prime Minister (CSSD), as well as the president of the National Assembly, Lubomir Zaoralek. The President of the Employment Council, Revenue and Social Cohesion (CERC) also insisted on reassuring the population: "I've heard the concerns that enlargement inspires every time there has been enlargement. As far as Czechia is concerned the biggest change took place thirteen or fourteen years ago. All Czech leaders have prepared themselves sufficiently, negotiations have lasted long enough," he declared. "We need you to create Greater Europe, " concluded Jacques Delors calling on the Czechs to vote "yes" to the membership of their country to the EU on 13th and 14th June.