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Estonia - Referendum on UE membership

The estonians approve their country's entry into the European Union

The estonians approve their country's entry into the European Union

14/09/2003 - Results

"It would seem strange for us suddenly to change our minds after ten years travelling in this direction," declared Juhan Parts, Prime Minister (Res Publica). His fellow countrymen thought the same thing when a majority of them voted in favour by referendum of their country's membership to the European Union (67% "yes"). Opponents to membership won 33% of the votes cast. The participation rate was high (63%) and much higher than the most recent general elections on 2nd March this year (+ 5 points). Participation by the electorate, who were allowed to vote three days before the election, was the highest ever recorded during an election. Likewise nearly 5,000 Estonians living abroad (mainly in Sweden, Finland and Canada) voted in this referendum, that meant 2,000 more than during the general elections. We should remember that there is no minimum participation threshold necessary in Estonia for the election to be valid.

During the summer opinion polls showed that the Estonians, who have a long history of being Euro-sceptics, had a growing desire to belong to Europe. The latest surveys revealed that more than 70% of the population was in favour of the country's membership to the European Union, i.e. 15 to 20 points more than in the Spring this year. The intense electoral campaign undertaken by the government, the various non-governmental organisations and the press were decisive. The political authorities did not hesitate in using all the means at their disposal (ranging from the traditional methods to SMS sent to mobile phone owners) to inform and convince the Estonians of how important the election was. "The referendum is the most important choice in Estonia's modern History," declared Arnold Rüütel, the Republic's President during his final campaign speech. "If the result is negative we shall have to face a situation that no other country with a history similar to ours has experienced. It would be irresponsible to want something like this to happen," he added. According to the political analysts the referendum's success owes much to the personality of President Rüütel, a very well liked politician amongst the population because of his rural origins and his role as negotiator when the country won back its independence. He managed to convince many of those who were undecided in a country that was initially Euro-sceptic. Last week the Lutheran Church, that covers the majority in Estonia also called on its worshippers to vote "yes", causing a controversy within a part of the hierarchy who interpreted this appeal as a stigmatisation of the Euro-sceptics. For their part the Orthodox Church remained neutral during this campaign.

Günter Verheugen, European Commissioner for Enlargement, who was visiting Tallinn on 12th September, warned about the dangers of political isolation if the "no" vote won the day. "You have the choice of which colour to choose. By saying "no" you are in danger of entering a grey area. I am not certain that there is a better solution for Estonia. The political and economic future of the country depends very much on integrating Europe." Likewise the President of neighbouring Finland, Tarja Halonen, greatly encouraged the Estonians to vote in favour of membership of the European Union, "The Baltic countries and Estonia are especially close in my eyes and are very important. Our way of thinking is often very similar and we may comprise a group within an enlarged Europe. It would be sad not to see you within the European Union."

Opponents to European integration whose slogan ("From one Union to another, NO!") compared the Soviet Union to the European Union and tried to frighten the population but they were ignored. Arnold Rüütel, President of the Republic argued several times against this comparison: "The Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime and the European Union is a union of free countries." The campaign by adversaries to membership of the European Union ended on Saturday evening with the release tracts over the capital Tallinn; these tracts bore the following words, "Freedom is not a sausage that can be marketed, it is an ideal buried in each of our hearts and it is impossible to buy it. Say "no" because freedom is our treasure."

The Estonian "yes" is the final act in their independence vis-à-vis Russia. They are therefore joining Europe to which they belong. They clearly showed they believe that their political and economic future, like their independence, will be better guaranteed within the European Union than without it. "Russia believes that Estonia is a puny dwarf whose existence it has to tolerate because of the watchful eye of the international community. A military attack against Estonia's independence is improbable within the present international context but there are other ways of damaging our independence," emphasised Siim Kallas, former Prime Minister and president of the reform party in a letter dedicated to the referendum. Many share the hope that the country's membership of the European Union will lead to the improvement of the Baltic State's relationship with its powerful neighbour. "Estonia within the European Union will be different from the Estonia of today. It will help our Eastern neighbour to change its attitude towards us and psychologically accept that Estonia is a totally independent State," declared Juhan Parts, Prime Minister. President Rüütel, who was anxious to unite Estonian citizens in the face of their new commitments, said on Sunday that he hoped on Monday morning "to bring together both Euro-sceptics and those in favour of the European Union around the same table in order to progress together."

Estonia has therefore become the 8th candidate country to approve its membership of the European Union. The Prime Minister reasserted his desire to see his Latvian neighbours make the same choice on Saturday (the Latvians will be voting on 20th September on their membership of the European Union); "We have travelled the same road together," he emphasised. Finally Juhan Parts expressed the wish to see the birth of "an informal, close co-operation" between the three Baltic Republics and the Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden and Denmark) within the European Union: "We share many common positions, creating a solid basis for working together within an enlarged European Union."

Referendum results of 14th September 2003 on Estonia's membership of the European Union:

Participation: 63%

Source Agence France Presse
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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