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Estonia - Referendum on UE membership

Referendum on the European Union in Estonia, september 14th 2003

Referendum on the European Union in Estonia, september 14th 2003

14/09/2003 - Analysis

"Do you support joining the European Union and the adoption of an amendment law to the Constitution of the Estonian Republic?". This is the question to which the Estonians need to reply on September 14th in a referendum on the European integration of their country. In this Baltic Republic, there exists no minimum requirement of participation for the electoral law to validate the referendum.

On December 18th, eighty per cent of the hundred members to the Riigikogu (monocameral parliament) have voted for the amendment to the Constitution that allows the Baltic Republic to enter the European Union on May 1st 2004.

According a recent opinion poll early this month by the survey institute Emor, 70% of the Estonians intend to participate in the referendum on September 14th ; 69% are prepared to vote for the membership of their country to the European Union and 31% against.

The candidature of Estonia

Estonia is part of the group of candidate countries that the European Union began first negotiations with in March 31st 1998. The country has a high growth rates: 5,6% in 2002 and 5% expected for this year. Inflation is low (3,6% in 2002) and unemployment (11,2%) is rising in comparison to precedent years. The currency (Estonian crown) is stable, with a fixed monetary parity to the euro. Finally budget excess was at 1,1% of GDP. The only problem of the economy: the worsening of exterior imbalances as the current deficit was at 11,5% of GDP in 2002.

Estonia has a high level of alignment with the "acquis communautaire". Public administration has been successfully reformed, even though there is still an effort to make to modernise territorial communities suffering from a lack of local executives and from their insufficient tax resources. The country also needs to undertake modernisation of the judicial system, especially providing numerous positions of magistrates that remain vacant, as well as to improve the quality of tribunal decision execution.

Being one of the least populated of the three Baltic states (1,4 million inhabitants), Estonia has an important Russian speaking minority : 400 000 people, that is 29% of its population. At the time of its independence in 1991, law granted the Estonian nationality to all people residing the country before 1940, as well as to their descendants. In 1995, the Riigikogu adopted a new law on citizenship that was more demanding than the previous. To obtain the nationality, it was required to further have lived in Estonia for at least five years before the application and another year after it, to know the Constitution and citizenship law, to have a legal income that is sufficient to provide for one and one's family, and finally, to take the oath of allegiance to the Estonian Republic. The Estonian nationality as well was made compulsory for the exercise of certain professions or to access certain functions. The Riigikogu has nevertheless abolished the obligation to speak fluent Estonian as previously required of candidates to local or general elections.

Since 1991, more than 120 000 "non citizen" have opted for the Estonian nationality, 90 000 chose the citizenship of the Russian Federation. Still 70 000 people live in Estonia without having become Estonian citizens. However, this high number is declining more rapidly than in neighbouring Latvia. Furthermore, recent sinking of the Russian speaking political formation has proven the integration of the Russian speaking minority which has a right to vote for local elections. Finally, the recognition of the Russian orthodox church, placed under the authority of the patriarch of Moscow, along with his 10 000 living faithful in the country, has contributed to calming down the political climate and has brought an end to years of tension with Russia.

Public opinion and European integration

For a long time considered, along with the Latvians, as the most eurosceptical population of all the candidate countries, the Estonians are henceforth in majority declaring themselves in favour of an accession of their country to the European Union. Last may, the positive vote by the Lithuanians has caused the rate of Estonians supporting an accession to the European Union to climb further. According to the TNS Emor institute, the percentage of opinion in favour of European integration, which was at 50% before the Lithuanian referendum, rose to 59% after the outcome of their Baltic neighbour's vote. During the last three years, certain events, such as the Estonian victory in 2000 at the Eurovision de la chanson competition, have largely contributed to increasing the support for the country's accession to the European Union. Again others have played a rather negative role, such as in 2001 the breakout of the mad cow disease, associated by the population with the European Union, has forced a fall in the number of Estonians in favour of the European integration of their country.

Three weeks away from the referendum, the support for membership has soared up approaching 70% per cent in recent opinion polls, with a "no" of 30%, whereas since January 2002, the opponents of European integration were regularly between 35% and 45% of the electorate. Along the political analysts, this jump was due to an intensification of the governmental information campaign.

The electoral campaign

"Estonia will always be part of Europe", as expressed by the President of the Republic, Arnold Rüütel, the Prime Minister Juhan Parts (Res Publica) and the President of the Riigikogu, Ene Ergma (Res Publica) in a declaration published June 25th. These three personalities have underlined the guarantee represented by the membership to the European Union for the future of the Estonian language and culture, for political as well as for economic stability. "We invite all citizens of Estonia to vote "yes" on September 14th and contribute to the future of the country", as concluded in a joint declaration signed by all Ministers of the government. Looking at the referendum campaign, the authorities have installed 15 information agencies on the European Union throughout the country, as well as several telephone centres have been opened to respond to all questions that might be raised by the population. One of the country's most renowned journalists, Hannes Rumm, has been nominated two years ago as head of the governmental information service on the European Union.

A budget of 1 050 000 Estonian crowns (about 78 000 euros) has been allocated for the referendum campaign. This sum will be shared between opponents to the European integration, represented in principle by two movements, "No to the European Union" run by Uno Silberg and "Our state", and the formations in favour of Estonian adhesion to the European Union. These will benefit of a sum of 500 000 crowns (about 38 000 euros) from Open Estonia, an organisation dependent on the Open Society Institute by the American billionaire George Soros.

The centre party (EK), the country's principle opposition formation and first party of Riigikogu, (run by Edgar Savisaar, has gathered 25,4% of the votes at the last general elections on march 2nd and won 28 in the parliament) has chosen on August 9th, at his conference, to oppose the Estonian membership to the European Union . 341 of his members have voted against the European integration of the country, 235 in favour and 227 "may each one vote according to his conscience". Nine personalities of this centre left formation, among these the spokesman Peeter Kreitzberg and eight former Ministers (Jaanus Marrandi, Sven Mikser, Siiri Oviir, Mailis Reps, Ain Seppik, Liina Tonisson, Toomas Varek and Harri Ounapuu), have immediately signed a joint declaration in which they affirm not to feel engaged in the decision of their party to vote "no" in the referendum of September 14th and to engage in continuing to campaign for a "yes".

The majority of Estonians declare to be in favour of their country's membership to the European Union three weeks away from the referendum. May this referendum be an occasion for the population to become aware of what is at stake in this matter, on which it is asked to give its verdict on and to express its desire for Europe.
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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