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Estonian Referendum to Join EU Passes - 2003-09-15

People in the Baltic republic of Estonia have voted overwhelmingly to join the European Union. With all votes counted, the "yes" camp prevailed with 67 percent, a majority that had been expected.

Voters flocked to polling stations all over Estonia in bright, sunny weather and said "yes" to joining the EU next May. Officials say turnout was 63 percent of eligible voters for the referendum, which comes 12 years after the tiny Baltic state won its independence from the Soviet Union.

After the vote count was in, Prime Minister Juhan Parts said that "Spring has arrived in Estonia." Many people call it a final break with the country's Soviet past after a decade of difficult economic reforms.

The economy was the primary issue in the minds of most people, with those voting "no" saying the country was surrendering control over its affairs to Euro bureaucrats in Brussels. Many small business owners felt they would not be able to compete with similar companies located in western European countries.

The 67 percent yes vote shows that there was substantially more skepticism in Estonia than in neighboring Lithuania, where a similar referendum in May passed with 91 percent approval. But the "yes" campaign still managed to prevail, with the argument that Estonia could only gain from joining the EU.

Many of Estonia's neighbors also encouraged voters to say yes, especially Finland, which shares deep linguistic and historical ties with Estonia.

Latvia is to hold its own referendum next Saturday. Officials there say they hope the positive outcome in Estonia will produce a similar result. If Latvia approves entry, in May, the European Union will expand to 25 member countries from the present 15.

Malta, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have also held referendums which approved their entry. Cyprus will not be holding its own referendum on the issue.

EU membership does not mean the ten would adopt the Euro currency anytime soon.

Along with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia has a long and troubled history with its giant eastern neighbor, Russia. All three countries were occupied by Soviet forces for half a century, finally regaining their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

In addition to the EU, the three have also been invited to join the NATO military alliance, an issue that has raised more concern in Russia.