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Before jumping on this EU train, they haven’t bothered to ask where it’s going.

Uno Silberg said he’ll be damned if he’s going to stand idly by while Estonia, ten years after escaping from the clutches of one union, turns around and joins another.
       He needn’t have bothered spelling out how he sees the Soviet Union and European Union as the same sort of sovereignty usurping monolith. One symbol adopted by his anti-EU group speaks for itself: It’s a blue flag with circling EU stars, and with a hammer and sickle stamped in the middle.
       A flier he handed out during an interview goes so far as to suggest 22 ways in which the USSR and EU are alike. No. 5 on the list likens Interpol, the pan-European police network, to the KGB; No. 11 compares the European Commission to the Politburo.
       EU backers scoff, saying the USSR and EU are worlds apart—not least of all because membership in the latter is voluntary. The parallel, they say, is a cheap rhetorical trick, a scare tactic. (See interview with former Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves.)
       But in nations where memories of heavy-handed Soviet rule remain fresh, it’s rhetoric that resonates with many—so europhobes trot it out as often as possible.

Law professor Igor Gräzin, Estonia’s best-known EU detractor, says he agrees with Silberg about purported similarities between the EU and the Soviet Union.
       But that’s not his main gripe: his is the speed at which successive Estonian governments have rushed to meet EU membership requirements.
       “‘Hurry Up! We might miss the train!’ they shout,” said the 48-year-old. “Before jumping on this EU train, though, they haven’t bothered to ask where it’s going... or how much the ticket’s going to cost. Even if it turns out to be cheap, it’s not such a hot trip if the end of the line is an alligator-invested swamp, now is it?”
       It’s not alligators that worry Gräzin. 
       It’s leftwingers.
       The fiery advocate of unfettered free-markets complains that over 10 of 15 current EU governments are socialist-oriented. He said it’s one of the reasons the EU has pressed Estonia to abandon its ultra low-regulation, low-tax policies.
       “To qualify for EU entry, we’ll have to ditch the liberal market system that’s made us so successful,” he said. Many businessmen express the same fear.
       There’s not much Gräzin doesn’t abhor about the prospect of EU entry, down to what he says are inferior, EU-grown carrots and strawberries.
       “They don’t taste, or even smell,” he grimaced. “They’re so processed because of EU regulations that by the time you eat them you have to run to buy vitamins to supplement the nutrients that have been stripped out of them.”
       Food prices, he adds for good measure, will rise by at least 10 percent if Estonia enters the EU.
       “Who should be skeptical about EU membership?” he said. “Anyone who eats.”

EU backers insist the pluses of membership, including better access to European markets, far outweigh any minuses.
       But many, if not the majority of Baltic residents still seem unconvinced.
       A recent EU-funded poll concluded that the Baltic states were the least enthusiastic of 19 candidate states, with a mere 33 percent of Estonians and Latvians saying membership would be “a good thing;” that compared to 80 percent of Romanians.
       That people here seem so ambivalent is all the more surprising given that Brussels says the staunchly pro-West, pro-reform Baltics are among the best qualified candidates. They could join by as soon as 2004.
       But their front-runner status won’t do much good if an overwhelmingly pro-EU Baltic officialdom can’t get the okay from their lukewarm constituents; referendums on joining the EU are expected to be held in all three Baltics next year.
       The EU poll itself raises a once-unimaginable prospect: that Balts could end up saying thanks but no thanks to membership in the most prestigious multi-national club on Earth.

But skeptics can hardly count on throwing that proverbial train off the rails. Not liking the EU, for starters, doesn’t seem to translate here into opposition to EU membership.
       Pollster Ainar Voog said recent surveys for the Tallinn-based EMOR agency indicated that 58 percent of Estonians would vote for membership when push comes to shove i.e. when a referendum is held.
       He insisted that such high levels of support don’t contradict EU polls indicating such high levels of doubt.
       It’s the Grandma Factor, he said.
       Many elderly, he said, doubted they’d ever live to see benefits to themselves of membership—hence their EU skepticism.
       “But they support entry because they see it’ll be good for their children and grandchildren,”he said.
       For others, there is one perceived advantage of being in the EU that overrides all the negatives: security.
       Jane Saar, a 41-year-old school teacher in Tallinn, said she bought the argument that this small, historically vulnerable nation would be immune from outside pressure as a member of a European bloc that will unite more than 400 million people in over 30 countries.
       “Estonians are very ambivalent about the EU. But we simply can’t be left in a gray zone,” she said. “If we’re not in one bloc, we risk being sucked into another.” She said that other bloc would be Russia.
       (For some, the security argument carries less weight now that the Baltic states seem to be shoe-ins for membership in the NATO alliance. But Estonian parliamentarian Trivimi Velliste said NATO and the EU compliment each other: “The EU is good life. NATO is life.”)
       Estonia’s victory in 2001 at the Eurovision Song Contest illustrated just how fickle EU sentiment is, and how it’s so bound up in psychology. A wave of good feeling about Europe following the Eurovision triumph caused support for EU membership to surge 10 percent, from 35 to 45 percent.

Pro-EU forces can also take comfort in the sorry state of the opposition: it features just a few known public figures and a string of rag-tag groups with sometimes clashing political philosophies.
       While Gräzin complains the EU’s too interventionist, for instance, others—like Baltic framers who’ve been told they won’t get full EU agricultural subsidies right away after their countries join—say it’s not interventionist enough.
       And then there’s money: just one side of the debate has any.
       Baltic governments can be expected to spend many millions on pre-referendum campaigns. They can also commit whole departments of employees to the effort.
       In contrast, there doesn’t seem to be one anti-EU group here with the resources to fund even a single full-time employee—never mind one that could bankroll an all-out no campaign.
       “None of our groups have any money. Nothing,” lamented Silberg, who heads the 100-member No to the EU Movement.
       Asked how he pays for his group’s fliers—including the ones emblazoned with hammers and sickles—he shrugs his shoulders, grins weakly, and pats his hand on his own pant pocket.

See EU-related interview here.
Michael Tarm
—CITY PAPER-The Baltic States
                                               
—Above illustration by Hillar Mets.
Euroopa Liidu 



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