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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 9 April, 2003, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
Hungary on brink of EU
By Jan Repa
BBC Central and Eastern European analyst

Hungarians vote on Saturday in a binding referendum on whether to join the European Union.

Ten countries are scheduled to join the EU next year. Last month, Malta and Slovenia held their referendums - with landslide victories for the Yes camp.

Hungary is a Central European success story and support for EU membership is strong.

Peter Medgyessy
As early as the 1960s, the Hungarians began to break away from the Soviet system of centralised economic planning.

Since the peaceful breakup of Communist rule in 1989, Hungary has comprehensively reformed its economy, virtually completing privatisation and attracting high levels of foreign investment.

Investors like its relatively cheap labour force, the technical competence of its managers, its geographical location and its relative political stability.

Endorsements

The centre-left coalition goverment of Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy has campaigned hard for a Yes vote.

LANDMARKS IN HUNGARIAN HISTORY
1920 - Hungary loses two-thirds of territory after break-up of Austro-Hungarian Empire
World War II - allied with Nazi Germany
1944 - Soviet occupation, leading to Communist regime
1956 - anti-Communist uprising crushed by the Soviet army
1989 - border with Austria opened, precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall
1990 - democratic elections and the installation of a centre-right government dedicated to joining the EU and Nato
The Catholic Church, which claims to represent some 55% of the population, has also endorsed EU membership.

Even the conservative opposition leader, Viktor Orban, who has raised the spectre of high prices, a loss of national values and threats to the livelihood of farms, small entrepreneurs and pensioners, has given a qualified Yes to membership.

Still opposed are the far-right Justice and Life party - for whom the EU is part of an international, capitalist, Jewish plot to destroy the Hungarian nation - and the diehard "true" Communists. Neither enjoy much electoral support at present.

Two halves

The main worry for the government is the prospect of a low turnout on Saturday.

In order to be valid, at least 25% of the electorate has to vote one way or the other.

While the more prosperous western half of Hungary is strongly pro-EU, the poorer eastern half is likely to see a higher abstention rate - and a higher percentage of people voting No.

The first results are expected late on Saturday evening.

A week from now, on 16 April, the 10 candidate countries are scheduled to sign the EU accession treaty in Athens.

Six of them will still need to hold their own accession referenda:

  • Lithuania and Slovakia in May

  • Poland and the Czech Republic in June

  • Estonia and Latvia in September.

The treaty also needs to be ratified by each of the existing EU members.

There is speculation that France - which has been unenthusiastic about enlargement from the start - may still seek to raise some obstacle.


SEE ALSO:
Key EU enlargement vote passed
09 Apr 03  |  Europe
Hurdles on road to EU expansion
14 Dec 02  |  Europe
Slovenia votes for EU and Nato
24 Mar 03  |  Europe
Maltese back EU entry
09 Mar 03  |  Europe
Postcard from Budapest
10 Dec 02  |  Europe
Country profile: Hungary
17 Mar 03  |  Country profiles


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