Tiny Malta goes to the polls on Saturday in the first of a wave of referendums in countries that have been invited to join the European Union next year. The Maltese referendum is expected to be close because it is bound up with the political polarization that characterizes the tiny three-island archipelago. But it is unlikely to influence similar referendums on the EU that will be held later in the year in former communist countries.
When the European Union expands to 25 countries from the current 15, Malta could become its smallest member, in terms of both area and population. That is, if it votes to join the union.
Opinion polls show that just over 50 percent of Maltese favor joining the union. Those opposed oscillate between 20 and 25 percent. And those who say they are undecided are about 25 percent.
The Maltese referendum is non-binding, but the result will have to be validated by a general election later this year. And the island nation's two major political parties have staked out starkly contrasting positions.
The ruling Nationalists of Prime Minister Eddie Fenech-Adami are urging Maltese to vote yes, saying the island nation's natural home is a Europe of common values and aspirations.
The left-wing Labor Party, led by Alfred Sant, says Malta will be swallowed up by Europe and lose its identity. Dock workers and fishermen say they fear the loss of jobs.
Diplomats in Valletta, the capital, say the yes vote will probably win, but not by much.
The first former communist state to hold a referendum on EU accession will be the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, on March 23. At the same time, Slovenia is holding a referendum on whether it should join NATO. And although support for EU membership is running at around 68 percent, support for NATO membership is below 40 percent.
Across central and eastern Europe, support for EU membership has generally risen since the candidate countries were invited into the union last December.
But there are questions about Poland, the biggest of the potential members, where economic stagnation, high unemployment and political instability have caused general disenchantment among voters. Although three out of five Poles say they favor EU membership, what worries EU officials is that the referendum turnout might be under the required minimum of 50 percent. In that case, the decision would be left to the Polish parliament.
Support for EU membership is also weak in the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. But EU officials hope voters there will be swayed by the results of a May referendum in neighboring Lithuania, where pro-EU forces are expected to win.