Estonian referendum campaign in search of inspiration

Article published on April 24, 2003
community published
Article published on April 24, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Barely launched, the media campaign on Estonias integration into the EU seems already to be running out of steam.

One hundred and fifty days before the big meeting that should decide Estonias new geo-political trajectory, life on the shores of the Baltic is carrying on as normal. In short, the workers are working, the government is governing, the dogs are barking and the caravans are rolling by. Its hard to believe that the country is preparing to turn a new page in its history. Because, whatever anyone says, whether the country joins the EU or turns its back on it, another chapter will be opening with the outcome of the referendum next September 14th. The media, in a reflection of this peculiarly Estonian stoicism in the face of history, is hardly getting worked up at all over the issue, either to court or to annihilate Brussels.

Free-trade zone?

No doubt editorial decisions are behind the lukewarm nature of the debates. The news mill has not been short of international and national stories to fill its front pages and to provide headlines. First and foremost, the crisis in Iraq and subsequent descent into war has taken on crucial significance in most sections of the media. And we know the result: hijacked by the old v. new Europe split, the European message is barely audible. More seriously, with renewed emphasis placed squarely upon the role of individual member states in the conduct of international affairs, the very concept of a political Europe has been shattered. The war in Iraq has done therefore more than could possibly have been hoped to reinforce the popular belief already held by the majority of Estonians that the EU is nothing but a free-trade zone.

Its hard for the media and citizens alike to fall in love with a free-trade zone.

Another more pronounced sign of the lack of interest in the referendum: the legislative elections of 2nd March did not give rise to the much-anticipated debate on the opportunity of accession. More profitable politically, the issues of security, taxation or corruption determined the debate much more than the role of the country within the European Convention, observes Henrik HOLOLEI wearily, Estonian government representative in the Convention. The new Prime Minister, Juhan Part (of Res publica - new leading right-wing party) has of course repeated many times his aim of getting Estonia into the EU. But his success with regard to this question will be judged on his ability to mobilise the voters.

For all that, it would be inaccurate to conclude that debate has simply been avoided. Firstly, it must be pointed out that the political campaign has only just begun. As the Estonian referendum comes second to last on the ratification schedule (it takes place in five months), it would not have been very productive, from a media point of view, to start much earlier. Besides, the campaign is already taking advantage of the media coverage of the referendums in Malta, Slovenia and Hungary to keep discussions going. Ultimately, as Paavo Palk, spokesman for the European Union Information Secretariat of the Estonian State Chancellery, underlines, the signing of the unification treaty on 16th April should give new impetus to the campaign by giving public opinion a strong starting signal.

Dodging the debate

More fundamentally, the modest nature of the Estonian referendum campaign is, above all, revealing of poor organisation on the part of the opponents of accession, as well as their bitter lack of media exposure. Not represented in the Riigikogu (the Estonian parliament), Euro-sceptics are ignored even more by the mass media, since the three leading daily newspapers, the three TV channels and the most important radio stations are in favour of integration, though without having financial or political links with the powers that be (with the exception of public service TV). Its difficult to exist, when majority, opposition and media are all agreed on the same one issue, remarks Mr. HOLOLEI. For communicating its message, the No to the EU Movement, led by Uno Silberg, practically only has its website.

Curiously, in a political and media climate so favourable to integration, the surveys bring to light a contradiction: with 57% voting yes against 37% saying no (1), Estonia features only halfway up on the candidate countries Euro-enthusiasm winners board. This can undoubtedly be seen as the natural dropping-off of interest that follows a wait of ten years to be admitted into the union. The paradigm of support for Europe - which sees a country leaning closer towards accession the more the forces pushing her into it lose their momentum could be confirmed once more.

Identical arguments for ten years

The other side of the coin, in this curious absence of political duelling, is the stagnation of the debate. Confined to an academic approach towards the question of Estonian accession, with a good many diagrams, specialists forums, and other university studies, the general media could fall into the trap of presenting integration as rational, even mandatory, as some would have us believe. An ideal point of attack for the No Movement, whose main message rests on a denunciation of state propaganda and the slogan EU=USSR - backed up by a star-spangled flag with the hammer and sickle at its centre. In a country so proud of its newly-acquired sovereignty, where anything resembling a form of dominant ideology is treated with suspicion, the political and media-derived strength of the Yes to integration could, paradoxically, become its weakness.

Still at the starting-blocks, the Estonian campaign has five months left to ignite the debate. The stakes are considerable: in December 2002, when the most recent opinion polls were carried out, 49% of those surveyed declared they had not made a firm decision concerning the referendum.

(1) EMOR survey carried out in December 2002: 57% supported more or less, if not completely, joining the EU, 33% were opposed, and 11% had no opinion.