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Opinions on Joining EU Mixed in Baltic Countries - 2002-11-29


The three Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia all received invitations to join the NATO alliance last week. They are also working toward joining the European Union in the next few years.

In the rich Lithuanian farming region of Marijampole, Jonas Kurtinaitis owns a pig farm, and also grows 130 hectares of beets, barley and wheat. By Lithuanian standards, this makes him a rather prosperous farmer. He was a solid supporter of NATO membership, but when it comes to membership in the European Union, he is worried.

Mr. Kurtinaitis says he doesn't understand why EU membership is such a high priority for the government. He says no one in the Marijampole believes life will improve if Lithuania joins the European Union.

Mr. Kurtinaitis and other farmers in the Baltics fear they won't be able to compete in a system they say protects farmers from big countries that have been in the European Union for a long time. He also fears ceding too much power to the European Union. He says choices about Lithuania and its economy should be made in Lithuania.

Lithuania's farmers are not the only ones with reservations about the European Union. In all three Baltic countries, many people are feeling apprehensive.

This past summer, the European Union surveyed people in candidate member countries to see how they felt about joining. Of the 13 candidate countries, most of them in Eastern or Central Europe, support in the three Baltic countries was the lowest.

Analysts say the survey shows Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, having so recently won their independence from the Soviet Union, were reluctant to cede it to the European Union.

The head of one of the leading polling companies in Latvia, Igars Freimanis, says less than half the people there support EU membership. "European Union is very complicated, and they request a lot of changes in our legislative system," he said. "And people are afraid that we are going to lose our independence."

That sentiment is shared in the smallest Baltic country, Estonia. One of the main critics of EU membership is lawyer and former politician Igor Grazin. He says, after being forced to be part of the Soviet Union for so many years, the idea of joining another kind of union does not have broad appeal. "We have been under Moscow for 50 years, why the hell do we have to go under Brussels? Whatever we get from the Brussels are stupid decisions, and it is the same planned economy," said Igor Grazin.

Mr. Grazin and other critics also say the Baltics have done amazingly well on their own, since they became independent a little more than a decade ago. Since their economic growth is already high, the critics say, there is no need to join the EU.

In response, proponents of EU membership say the Baltics already do a great deal of trade with EU countries. They argue the Baltics are better off inside the union, where they can hopefully influence decisions that affect them. The former foreign minister of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, pushed strongly for EU membership while in office. "Lying outside the European Union, but having your economy being completely dependent on exports to the European Union means that you, basically, have to follow all of the EU regulations anyway," he said.

Supporters of EU membership acknowledge that the union has a public relations problem. They say one of the biggest difficulties is that people simply don't understand the EU, don't understand why it's necessary, and so are against it. They say that for people in the Baltics, the case for joining NATO was much clearer.

As head of Estonia's European integration office, part of Henrik Hololei's job is to make it clear to his countrymen why EU membership is so important. Persuading people of the benefits of joining the European Union, he says, is much harder than making the case for NATO. "EU has so many goals and objects, and it's very difficult to be defined, compared to NATO, for example, where it is very easy, always, to cut it down to the military security and defense aspect," said Henrik Hololei.

Supporters of EU membership say they are trying to get out their message that EU membership is good, not bad for the Baltics. There has even been talk of changing how the word "union" is translated into local languages. So, for example, in Lithuania, they wouldn't be using the same word - sajunga - that in many people's minds is associated with the Soviet Union - not the European Union.

But on his Lithuanian farm, Jonas Kurtinaitis says the European Union by any name would be just as bad. He says if there were a referendum in Lithuania right now, he'd vote against membership.

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