Czechs Embrace EU Membership | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 15.06.2003
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Czechs Embrace EU Membership

Czechs voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the European Union in a two-day referendum that paves the way for the former communist country to enter the bloc of wealthier west European nations in May 2004.


Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla smiles after the announcement of the first exit polls of the EU referendum on Saturday.

In a historic move that took few by surprise, Czech citizens said a resounding "yes" to EU membership on Saturday thus clearing the way for the Czech Republic to take its place among Europe’s western heavyweights in May 2004.

An exit poll conducted by the SC&C agency on Saturday showed 77.3 percent opted in favor of joining the EU, with turnout over Friday and Saturday estimated at a low 55.2 percent. "This is a success for each and every citizen of the Czech Republic," Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said after the exit polls were announced.

"Today's vote puts an end to the results of the Second World
War. We have come back to where we are strong and have great opportunities," Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told journalists.

Unlike in Poland, where officials feared the required 50 percent of voters would not turn out, there wasn’t much doubt that the Czech referendum, which requires a simple majority, would flounder due to poor turnout. Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Malta and Slovakia have already given the go-ahead for joining the bloc in EU referendums.

Euroskeptics silenced

The "yes" vote has vindicated Prime Minister Spidla’s center-left government, which launched a multi-million dollar advertising and media campaign to inject enthusiasm for the EU among the Czech Republic’s 7.5 million voters. The campaign was criticized widely for failing to explain what life would be like in an enlarged EU and for focussing too much on technical issues.

The positive result is also likely to silence doubters and euroskeptics who feared that joining the 25-member Union would mean a loss of sovereignty. Prominent among them were Jan Zahradil, the chief foreign policy expert for the populist opposition party ODS and Czech President and member of the ODS, Vaclav Klaus.

"Every one of us has a say in the referendum and whether the Czech Republic should voluntarily give up an important part of its sovereignty and independence to a larger supranational body in exchange for the possibility of having a say in a part of this entity," Klaus said recently.

Havel in favor

Several Czech citizens, especially the old and poorly paid, had also expressed worries in surveys conducted before the referendum that economic convergence would raise prices and lead to more hardship after more than a decade of economic reforms.

However former president and legendary author and influential independence figure Vaclav Havel threw his weight behind the pro-EU camp in recent months.

"A loss of sovereignty?", Havel asked. "I can only lightly laugh about that. We don't have fundamental independence anyway. In this globalized world, which I don't want to judge right now, no country located in the middle of such a developed region like Europe can have total sovereignty."

EU hails Czech decision

The European Commission also welcomed the Czechs' widespread support for EU membership. Commission President Romano Prodi said in a statement issued in Brussels, "This is a good day for Europe, further proof that our people belong together."

European Enlargement Commissioner Günter Verheugen, who recently expressed doubts the Czechs could be persuaded to join the bloc, lauded the pro-EU stance. "The Prague Spring of 1968 convinced me, that hardly anyone can teach the Czechs anything about freedom, democracy and human rights," Verheugen said.

The enlargement commissioner also underlined the special role the Czech Republic could play in the EU on account of its special recent history and the "velvet revolution" that helped topple communist rule 15 years ago. "The entire EU will profit from the special Czech sensibility in issues of equality, human rights, equality of opportunity and relations with neighbours," he said.

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