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Last Updated: Sunday, 18 May, 2003, 14:33 GMT 15:33 UK
Slovaks say 'Yes' to EU
From left to right: Chairman of the Slovak Parliament Pavol Hrusovsky, President Rudolf Schuster and Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda
Slovak leaders greeted each other as the results were announced
Slovaks have voted overwhelmingly to join the European Union, according to official results of a two-day referendum released on Sunday.

The government hailed the outcome.

"It is a success for all citizens of Slovakia and I am very happy because [it] is a result of free people in a free process," Slovak Deputy Prime Minister Pal Csaky, who is also minister for European Integration, said on Sunday.

Slovakia is the fifth EU candidate to hold a referendum on joining, after 10 states were invited last year to join the bloc in May 2004.

Malta, Slovenia and Hungary voted "yes" earlier this year, followed by Lithuania last week.

The Slovak results showed that 92.46% of voters backed EU membership, with only 6.20% voting against.

Only 52.15% of eligible voters took part in the poll, narrowly passing the 50% threshold required by law.

The European Commission welcomed the referendum results.

"The commission congratulates Slovakia for the overwhelming support for EU accession as shown by the outcome of the referendum," it said in a statement.

"This demonstrates the strong will of the Slovak people to join the European family of democratic nations as a member of the European Union, with equal rights and obligations."

'Road ahead'

On Saturday, during the second and final day of the vote, there had been fears that turnout would fall short of 50%.

Slovak supporters of EU membership
Slovaks hope EU membership will bring jobs and prosperity

And in an attempt to ensure a valid referendum, Slovak leaders resorted to a last-minute appeal to get people to vote.

"We call you to use the little time you have left to go to the polls to give your say on the road ahead for our country," they said in a statement just hours before the polls closed.

But correspondents said there was little question that the country was strongly in favour of joining the bloc, with opinion polls showing nearly 80% wanted accession.

Vibrant economy

Slovakia, a landlocked country of 5.4 million people, was the poorer half of the former Czechoslovakia.

From left to right: Parliament speaker Pavol Hrusovsky, President Rudolf Schuster and Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda
Leaders made a dramatic last-minute appeal to voters

For its first five years of independence starting in 1993, it was governed by autocratic hardline nationalist Vladimir Meciar.

Concerns about its human rights record meant its application was delayed while neighbours like Poland and Hungary pressed ahead.

But since 1998, rapid political and economic reform has turned it into one of the region's most vibrant economies.

Even if salaries are low and unemployment is high, Slovakia registered growth of more than 4% last year - well above the EU average.

The BBC's Alix Kroeger in Bratislava says Slovakia is still one of the poorer countries in the region, but with EU entry now assured, many hope membership will bring jobs and prosperity.





WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Gillian Ni Cheallaigh
"The celebrations, like the turnout, were low key



SEE ALSO:
Slovakia's beleaguered Gypsies
14 May 03  |  Europe
Hungary's EU apathy
14 Apr 03  |  Europe
Hurdles on road to EU expansion
14 Dec 02  |  Europe
Making Slovakia work
29 Nov 02  |  Business
Country profile: Slovakia
22 Mar 03  |  Country profiles


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