NATO Review
May/June 1997

EU and NATO enlargement:
How public opinion is shaping up
in some candidate countries

George Cunningham

Central and Eastern Eurobarometer Project Director

As the issue of inviting new members to join both the European Union and NATO takes on increasing urgency, public attitudes in some of the prospective candidate countries are noteworthy. The following public opinion results from Central Europe and the Baltic states are drawn from the most recent Central and Eastern Eurobarometer, published by the European Commission in March 1997.(1) The author is a European Commission official dealing with information policy towards Central Europe and writes in a personal capacity. The views expressed in this article do not commit the European Commission or NATO in any way.

Prosperity and security

Opinion polls are very popular ways of capturing the public mood of a country. The issue of the moment in the countries of Central Europe and the Baltic states is inevitably their twin overwhelming desires for prosperity and security, which translates into the political impulse by their governments to join the two principal organisations which they consider may help them in this regard - respectively the European Union and NATO.

What makes public opinion surveys on this matter even more important is that some governments are likely to put one or both enlargements - if and when negotiations have been successfully concluded - to the test of a referendum. Slovakia is ahead of the game by planning to hold a referendum in May on NATO membership, even before NATO's Madrid Summit in July. Thus finding out how and why the public would vote at a given moment in time becomes essential in understanding and trying to cope with the debate that is increasingly taking place in candidate countries. To achieve that understanding, only two questions really need to be asked in a typical public opinion survey. First a simple "Would you vote for or against membership?", which we can then take much further with the obvious follow-up: "What are the main reasons why you would vote for/against?".

Looking at the overall results for the region, just over half (53 per cent) of those interviewed at the time of the European Commission's latest Central and Eastern Eurobarometer survey in November 1996 (2) said they would vote for NATO membership if there was a referendum tomorrow. Only 10 per cent said they would vote against, while 17 per cent were undecided. The results were even more unequivocal on the question of EU membership: 61 per cent of those questioned in the ten countries polled would vote for membership, only 7 per cent against and 15 per cent remained undecided.

A mixed result

These results are at first glance very satisfactory to those who support NATO and EU enlargement. But if one looks closer, the reason why the regional results are so positive is because the two countries with the biggest share of population are by far the most supportive of membership in both organisations - Romania and Poland. In these two countries, 76 per cent (Romania) and 65 per cent (Poland) of the population is in favour of joining NATO and 80 per cent (Romania) and 70 per cent (Poland) would vote to join the European Union.

Indeed, on the question of NATO membership, there is a big gap between Romania, Poland and the rest of the ten. Apart from Slovenia, at a respectable 39 per cent in favour, no other country has more than a third in favour of joining NATO, the majority being in a narrow band of 27 per cent to 32 per cent in favour. It must be said that in all cases, there is no majority against NATO membership, although two candidates - Hungary and the Czech Republic - have a sizeable opposition built up of between one-quarter and one-fifth of their populations. On a more positive note, opposition in Bulgaria has halved from 28 per cent "against" a year ago, when the question was first asked, to only 13 per cent "against" this time (and this was before the new Bulgarian government firmly committed itself to seeking membership in NATO).

It should be noted that the results in Estonia and Latvia exclude sizeable segments of populations that do not have citizenship and the right to vote. If all residents were included, then the results for those in favour of NATO membership would drop from 32 per cent to 26 per cent in Estonia and from 31 per cent to 27 per cent in Latvia. Minorities in those two countries are only in favour of NATO membership by 8 per cent (versus 30 per cent "against") and 13 per cent (versus 26 per cent "against") with absolute majorities in both cases in fact undecided or saying they "don't know". Among citizens, intentions to vote for NATO membership have also declined over the past year - by 10 points in Lithuania and 15 points in Estonia.

As for the EU, relative majorities (43-49 per cent) are in favour of EU membership in the other five candidate countries (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia), excluding the Baltic states. The Baltic states now have the least number of people who responded positively about the EU among candidate countries, with only 29 per cent (Estonia), 34 per cent (Latvia) and 35 per cent (Lithuania) in favour of joining, and up to 17 per cent against (Estonia).

The debate for and against membership

The clearly dominating argument among interviewees for joining NATO is its image as a guarantor of security and stability in the region (49 per cent). The desire for security guarantees is most widely held in Poland (59 per cent) and Lithuania (58 per cent). In Poland and Estonia, many people also refer to security and protection from Russia as a reason for entering NATO (7 per cent for the whole region). However, a considerable number of interviewees (11 per cent) also link NATO membership with hope for more general progress and cooperation, this non-military interpretation being most prevalent in Romania. Another 11 per cent expect that NATO will help to control and reform the army and the military industry as well as the same percentage stating simply that their country needs NATO support.

The most frequent reason given for a vote against NATO membership is people's preference for their country having a neutral status. This view is shared in particular by about one-fifth of Latvians, Hungarians, Slovaks and Bulgarians.

On the other hand, Poles and Romanians do not show much sympathy towards neutrality. A general antipathy against the military and war is invoked as an argument against joining NATO more frequently than average in Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. This kind of reasoning is by contrast practically absent in Poland and Romania. The perceived expense of NATO membership is a deterrent factor particularly in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovakia and Hungary.

The strongest arguments given for a vote in favour of joining the European Union are "general progress" that can be made thanks to the EU (32 per cent in the whole region) and the expectation that the "economy will improve" (26 per cent). In some cases, people also see the accession to the EU as an impetus for structural reforms.

A 'No' vote is justified above all by economic arguments. Respondents in particular in the Baltics, the Czech Republic and Slovenia fear that joining the EU might worsen the economic situation, be too expensive or bring no benefits to their own country. In the Baltics, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, an above-average number of people is also concerned about a perceived loss of national identity and independence.

Implications

How does this help organisations like NATO and the European Union in the quest of drawing up an information policy on enlargement? Firstly, the results allow for a new dimension of policy prioritisation of countries according to their relative levels of public support and opposition to membership. The results can be usefully compared with political priorities in the region and conclusions drawn. Secondly, the reasons given for voting 'for' or 'against' - including many hundreds of verbatim answers now available thanks to this survey - allow for the crafting of specific messages which can address different countries in different ways using the prevalent language used 'on the street'.

One thing is clear - whatever the message, Central European and Baltic countries have to make their own choices about whether they want to join any institutions or not. There is a need for unbiased factual information to enable people to make an informed decision if referenda occur. The job of information policy should be to provide those facts. It must be remembered that people in the region have lived through and successfully ignored 40 years of propaganda, so all of us need to respect and encourage new democracies to make their own choices in an informed way.


Footnotes:

  1. The full text of the report can be obtained by E-mail at george.cunningham@dg10.cec.be

  2. These results are taken from the Central and Eastern Eurobarometer No. 7, published in March 1997, a public opinion poll, conducted annually by the European Commission in 20 Central and East European countries. A nationally-representative sample of 1,000 persons are interviewed face-to-face in their homes in each country. Regional results are weighted by population size. The referenda questions have been asked now for the second time in the ten countries which have submitted applications for both EU and NATO membership.

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