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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 14:23 GMT 15:23 UK
Hungary's EU apathy
By Gabriel Partos
BBC Central and South-east Europe analyst

Budapest factory worker sews stars on flag
Many Hungarians feel virtually part of the EU
There has been widespread support both within the European Union and in countries due to join it, for Hungary's overwhelming vote in favour of accession to the EU.

Nearly 84% of those who took part in Saturday's referendum backed the Hungarian political parties' pro-Europe stand - but only 46% turned out to vote.

The huge majority in favour of membership had been expected.

However, while the low turnout came as something of a surprise - opinion polls had predicted that two-thirds of the electorate would take part in the referendum.

In the end, the only thing that mattered was that the Yes vote should be at least one-quarter of the electorate.

That requirement was comfortably exceeded with the vote in favour at 38%.

Recriminations

Hungary was the first of the formerly communist-ruled countries of central Europe to apply for EU membership, back in 1994. Although membership is not due for another 13 months, many Hungarians already feel virtually part of the EU.

There is general expectation that Hungary, as a whole, will benefit from EU membership
An overwhelming vote in favour was widely expected. With the result a foregone conclusion, the silent majority simply decided it was not worth their while to turn up and vote for - or against - accession.

The low turnout has already led to recriminations among Hungary's politicians.

The governing Socialists have accused the centre-right opposition, led by the Hungarian Civic Party, Fidesz - which at one point referred to EU accession as a "forced marriage" - as being far too lukewarm in their support for membership.

For its part, Fidesz retaliated by dubbing the governing coalition's pro-Europe publicity campaign as simplistic because it ignored some of the pitfalls of EU accession.

Competition

There is general expectation that Hungary, as a whole, will benefit from EU membership.

We - the government and political parties - should wage an active campaign among people.
Mikulas Dzurinda
Slovakian prime minister
There will be direct assistance from Brussels as Hungary qualifies for farm subsidies - though not at the same level as existing members - and regional aid.

And there will be indirect benefits: some multi-national companies are already beginning to step up production in Hungary for export to the EU.

But there will also be increased competition for Hungary's farmers and its industries.

VOTED IN FAVOUR
8 March - Malta
23 March - Slovenia
12 April - Hungary
And some fear that the existing division between the country's prosperous west and the less developed east on the other side of the Danube may be accentuated by membership.

For now, though, politicians across the EU and in Hungary's partner-candidate countries are focussing on the present.

They have welcomed the big majority in favour of membership which makes Hungary the third country after Malta and Slovenia to have said Yes in a referendum.

Slovakian worries

The Hungarian vote is also significant because after two very small states, it is - with a population of 10 million - the first of the larger countries to have voted in favour.

DECIDING THIS YEAR
16-17 May - Slovakia
10-11 May - Lithuania
8 June - Poland
15-16 June - Czech Republic
14 September - Estonia
20 September - Latvia
But the absentee voters remain a possible problem for other countries where a turnout of 50% of the electorate is required for a ballot to be valid.

Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda - who completed the London marathon on Sunday - is now facing the last lap before Slovakia's membership vote.

He is aware of the lessons that need to be drawn from the Hungarian referendum:

"This referendum should be a kind of reminder for us," he said.

"It should be conducive to us making a full use of the period that lies ahead of us, a period in the course of which we shall be waging a robust referendum campaign."


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Nick Thorpe reports from Budapest
"The turnout was extremely disappointing"



SEE ALSO:
Hurdles on road to EU expansion
14 Dec 02  |  Europe
Country profile: Hungary
09 Apr 03  |  Country profiles


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