European Union Candidate Countries: 2003 Referenda Results
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Eu ropean Union Candidate Countries:
2003 Referenda Results
Specialist i n International Relations
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and T r ade Division
The C z ech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia,
and S lovenia h eld public referenda from M arch through S eptember 2003 on becoming
members o f t he European Union (EU). Thes e n ine countries plus Cyprus are ex p ected
to accede t o t he EU in May 2004, bringi ng the EU’s t otal membership to twenty-five.
Thi s report b ri efl y anal yz es t h e referenda r e s u l t s and i m p l i cat i ons. It wi l l not be
updated. For additional i nformation see CRS Report R S 21344, European Union
Backgr ound to the Refer enda
The E uropean Uni o n i s em b arki ng on a m aj or enl argem ent p rocess t hat wi l l ex pand
the Union from fifteen to twenty-five members b y mid-2004, and potentially more in the
coming years. The current round of enlargement i s notable for its siz e (which will ex pand
the EU z one from 378 to over 450 million peo p l e) an d i n clusion of many former
Communist bloc countri es. Ten candidat e count ries – Cyprus, the C zech Republic,
Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, P oland, Slovakia, and S lovenia – concluded
accession nego tiations in December 2002 and signed t he Treaty o f Accession on April 16,
2003 in Athens. Bulgaria and Romania aim to join the EU by 2007. Turkey is recogniz ed
as an EU candidate, and the countries of the western Balkans also seek eventual EU
membership, although n o t arget entry date has b een identified for these s tates.
From March t hrough S eptember 2003, nine of the t en acceding countries held public
referenda on joining t he EU according t o t heir own constitutional p rocedures (Cyp rus d id
not hold a referendum but ratified t he accession treaty t hr o u g h a parliamentary vote).
W hile individual results varied, all of the referenda out com es favored EU m em b ershi p ,
paving the way for t he acceding countries to become full members b y M ay 1, 2004, and
participate i n t he J une 2004 elections for t he European Parliament. T he fif t e e n c u rrent
EU m em b er st at es as wel l as t h e E uropean P arl i am ent m u st al so rat i fy t he accessi on t reat y
(the European Parliament did s o i n April 2003).
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W ithin a s ix -month p eriod (March-S eptember 2003), n ine acceding countries held
referenda on joining t he EU. Opinion polling dat a i n advance of t he votes suggested that ,
on average, over a majority of the populati ons in the candidate countries would s upport
EU accession. P o lls also i n d i cated that support for the E U h ad increased from earlier
pol l s , as t he prospect of j o i n i n g t he Uni o n b ecam e m or e imminent.1 This overall trend
prevailed i n t he referenda outco mes, with most countries regi stering l arge majorities i n
favor of EU membership (see table, below).
Table 1. 2003 EU Referenda a
Dat e Count r y Y e s % [ EU pol l b ] % No % Turnout %
Mar 8 Malta 53.6 [ 55] 46.4 91.0
Mar 2 3 S lovenia 89.2 [ 79] 10.3 60.3
Apr 1 2 Hungary 83.8 [ 71] 16.2 45.6
May 10-11 Lithuania 91.1 [ 75] 8.9 63.4
May 16-17 Slovakia 92.5 [ 70] 6.2 52.2
J u n 7 -8 Poland 77.5 [ 70] 22.6 58.9
J u n 13-14 Cz ech Rep. 77.3 [ 58] 22.7 55.2
Sept 14 Estonia 66.8 [ 41] 33.2 66.0
Sept 20 Latvia 66.9 [ 49] 32.4 72.5
aCyprus did not ho ld a r eferendum b ut parliament ratified accession treaty o n J uly 14.
b Sp ring 2003 Eurobarometer poll o f 12,000 persons, % saying they would vo te fo r EU membership in a
r e fe r e nd um ( s e e fo o t no t e 1 ) .
Data no te: I n some countries, small percentages o f votes cast were invalidated.
Sour ce: European Co mmission, d ata available at
[http ://eur o p a .eu. int/co mm/enlargement/nego tiatio ns/accessio n_ p r o cess.htm]
Rather than outcome, t he most uncertain f actor in many of the candidate countries
was voter turnout, s ince low p articipation l ev els t hreatened to invalidate t he referenda in
some countries, s uch as P oland. The p ercep tion t hat a positive outcome was a foregone
conclusion fostered greater voter ap a t h y in some countries. Governments h eavily
promoted the votes and m ade public relati ons efforts t o redress common criticism about
a l ack of information and knowledge about the EU. Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, and t he
Cz ech Republic held their referenda over t wo days in order t o i ncreas e participation. On
the other side, “Euroskeptics” on the political left an d r i gh t i m plicitly or ex plicitly
encouraged vot er abst ent i on, rat h er t h an a “no” vot e, as a m eans t o d em onst rat e
1 Eurobarome ter CC-EB 2003.2. Public Opinion i n t he Candidate Countries. J une 2003. Available
at [http://europa.eu.int/comm/ public_opinion/cceb_en.htm] .
opposition t o t he EU. 2 A result o f t his t rend may h ave b een to skew the results in support
of EU membership to a great er ex tent than was reflect ed in public opinion polls in most
countries, as reflected in the above table.
S o m e pre-referenda polling s howed par ticularly low l evels o f s upport for E U
membership in Estonia and Latvia, t he final t wo countries to hold referenda. T he anti-EU
lobbies in those s tates raised concerns about the potential l oss of nation a l i d e n t i t y t o
Brussels and s toked pop u l ar resistance to foreign i nfluence, stemming from Baltic
ex perience under S oviet domination and o ccupation. Proponents o f EU entry, above all
the Estonian and Latvian governments, em phasiz ed t he economic growth potential with
EU membership and warned o f resurgent Russian influence, if their countries remained
outs i d e o f the EU. Ethnic R ussians comprise t he largest minority groups in Latvia,
Estonia, and Lithuania, and t he poore s t o f t hese groups generally opposed EU
membership. However, i n t he end EU s upporters outvoted opponents b y wide m argi ns.
The Baltic governments hailed t he results as a m aj or step towards a “ret urn t o Europe.”
The EU-favorable outcomes o f all of the referenda in the candidate countries fulfilled
an important prerequisite for achievi ng their goal of j oining the EU i n 2004. 3 Beyond
meeting this immediate objective, any broader consequence or significance of the
referenda is difficul t t o m e a s u r e. For ex ample, while the s uccessful votes provided a
temporary boost t o t he governments o f t he candidate countries an d v i ndicated their
l e n g t h y and oft en d i ffi cul t accessi on nego t i at i ons wi t h t h e E U, t h i s vi ct ory m ay n o t
translate i nto any lasting b enefit in terms o f d o m es t i c political support for the current
candidate governments. Some governments – for ex ample, i n P oland an d t h e C zech
R e p u b l i c – remain d eeply unpopular for a vari ety o f reasons and face strong domestic
political opposition. C oalition i nfighting conti nues t o t hreaten political stability in Latvia.
In addition, the l arge majorities t hat favored joining t he EU may register different
o pinions on upcoming EU i ssues, s ome of which may require passage of additiona l
referenda. The EU is currently considering a draft consti t u t i on, and s ome candidate
governments h ave already voiced concerns a bout proposals t o reduce t he representation
and i nfl u ence of sm al l er E U m em ber s t at es.4 In the coming years, new EU m em bers will
also be working t o w a r d j oining the European Economic and M onetary Union and
adopting t he euro currency. Public support for these m easures is by no means guaranteed
and m ay present chal l enges i n pot ent i al future refere n d a . M o reover, unrealistic
ex pectations of immediate b enefits from EU m embership m ay sour public opinion on EU
Analys is of the EU referenda may also i nspire speculation o n b roader public opinion
trends in the candidate countries. On t he one hand, the imminence of EU entry m ay have
2 Quentin Peel, “ Europe will not divi de into old a nd new,” Financial Times , M ay 13, 2003.
3 The new entrants will also need to implement multiple r e f o rm tasks, to be outlined by the
European Commi ssion in its next annual progr ess r eport on t he candidate countries.
4 For more i nforma tion, see CRS Report RS21618, The European Union’s Con v e n t i on on the
Future of Europe and Dr aft “Constitution,” September 11, 2003.
increas ed public trust i n t he EU as an institution. Some anal ys is suggests t hat t he trans-
Atlantic rift over t he 2003 war i n Iraq m ay have fostered greater public confidence among
the candidate countries in the EU t han i n t he United S tates, and greater support f o r a n
independent EU foreign policy.5 On the o ther hand, many of th e candidate governments,
led by P oland, have opted to contribute military forces to the U.S.-led s tabilization effort
in Iraq, i n contrast to such EU members as France o r Germany. S o m e c andidate
countries, especially those formerly under S oviet domination, generally still look to the
United S tates for security. M any wish t o devel op a European defense i dentity but not at
the ex p ense of NATO. Their i nclusion into the EU m ay provide new d imensions to the
trans-Atlantic relationship i n forei gn policy and security issues .
Figure 1 . Map of Europe
Source: [http://www.political resources .net/europe-map.gif]
5 Eurobarometer, op. cit., p. 2.