Change in the Public Opinion

on the Accession of Estonia to the European Union

Institute for European Studies, Tallinn

Marika Kirch (Ph.D.)

According to the EU Commission communication strategy document there are three key objectives for the candidate countries:

    1. to improve public knowledge and understanding of the European Union;
    2. to explain the implications of accession for each country;
    3. to explain the link between the pace of preparations for membership and the progress of the negotiations.

The enlargement process raises questions that can be very different according to the countries involved. Therefore the strategy should follow a strongly decentralised approach, providing information and delivering messages responding to the specific needs and concerns of the people in the various countries, regions, localities and sectors

Estonian integration process with EU that started actively about six years ago has passed several periods, more optimistic in the beginning and less optimistic for last couple of years. Today we see that enlargement could turn into a political problem for Estonia, if the public opinion towards the EU will not change more positive.

There are 4 information centres, 15 information items and 17 information managers working on EU issues in 15 Estonian counties. There is also a special telephone (like in Slovenia) serving very different information needs of ordinary people who can ask any questions related to the EU issues. Although, there is no significant result obtained by the promotion and propaganda. European scepticism in Estonia is growing. Today there is a maximum number of people in Estonia who are against pressing integration the EU. One can ask if this is a sc Nordic phenomenon?

More about the pre-accession attitudes

From the outset of conducting sociological studies, polls of the public opinion have shown that the attitude of the people of Estonia towards the accession of Estonia to the EU is neither overemotional nor overoptimistic, rather, it has been deliberating and guarded. In early 90ies, the EU had a positive image for 30 to 38 per cent of the people of Estonia while 1 to 5 per cent of the people had a negative opinion about it.

The period of time from 1996 to 1998 may be called a period of maintaining neutrality. Critical attitude towards the European Union was expressed guardedly, while the number of the people who shared a positive opinion of it displayed a slight decrease. The percentage of the people who have a neutral opinion of the European Union was the largest.

Several researchers have tried to prognosticate the possible behaviour of the people of Estonia at the referendum on the accession of Estonia to the EU. The results show that the support has never been a stable phenomenon. In 1995 the percentage of supporters of the accession to the EU was 44, one year later that number had dropped to 30. In 1997 when inclusion of Estonia in the first round of candidate states for the enlargement of the European Union became a topical issue, the percentage of supporters of the accession to the EU increased a little. When it became clear that Estonia would be included in the first round of enlargement negotiations of the EU, the interest of the people in the EU and the support to the accession to it decreased. This result can be compared with the course of the development of the public opinion in other Nordic countries; the comparison shows that such trends could be expected. An analogous decrease in the intensity of the interest in the essence of the matter took place also in Finland after the referendum on the accession to the EU.

Comparison of the results of the polls shows that in many cases thinking patterns of Estonians about the European Union are borrowed from other countries. As the people of other East European countries, Estonians also think that agriculture may be the sphere that the accession to the EU would hurt most, although, considering the present condition of the Estonian agriculture, this may be otherwise. The experience of Finland demonstrated that after the accession of that country to the EU several developments took a course that was contrary to the expected one.

It is worth stressing that during this period the share of the people opposing the EU has been stable, changes had been caused mainly by some redistribution in the numbers of supporters and those having no opinion. The proportion of those who have no settled opinion, neither negative, nor positive, about the EU was the largest this period. The proportion of the people who in future may take the side of either Euro-optimists or Euro-sceptics was 51 % in May 1998. Euro-scepticism as a political movement denying the whole concept of integration of Europe has established itself at the considerable level in Estonia only during last year.

Still, it can be said that the expectations of different groups of the population have become substantially more realistic than they had been earlier. People have come to understand better what chances a small nation may have for “advancing its cause” in international organisations (bodies).

Differentiated opinions

From answers to general questions in the poll it could be concluded that the proportion of Euro-optimists among Estonians is somewhat less than that among non-Estonians. However, the analysis of the answers about the possible benefits and drawbacks of Estonia's accession to the European Union to individual spheres of activities and branches of economy shows that non-Estonians tend to be even greater sceptics about the positive influence of the EU than Estonians. Hence, it can be assumed that the greater enthusiasm of non-Estonians for Estonia's accession to the European Union is caused mainly by general political considerations and is more an emotional attitude, rather than a carefully weighed and firm position based on a wealth of information. In general, however, the proportion of those who have not worked out any firm position yet is still very high among both Estonians and non-Estonians.

The attitude of respondents towards Estonia's accession to the European Union depends very strongly on their educational level. The higher is the educational level of the respondent, the higher is also the probability that he/she is a firm supporter of Estonia's accession to the European Union. It is interesting to note that the proportion of Euro-sceptics does not reveal any correlation with the educational level of respondents (the proportion of Euro-sceptics is almost identical). The proportion of those who have no definite opinion about the issue of accession is great also among the people with higher education. However, only very few people with higher education answered that they had decided not to vote or that they could not answer the question. People with higher education very clearly want to have their say in deciding on what option should be taken on the issues of importance for the whole society, hence, at the future referendum they certainly will be among the most active social groups.

The economic welfare of the respondent is another factor (besides the educational level) that has a significant influence on the attitude towards the accession to the European Union. The proportion of Euro-optimists among the representatives of the group of respondents with the highest income is twice as large as that among the group with the lowest income. At the same time, the proportion of those who would say a firm "No" to the EU is very similar in both groups. Among the people with medium income the proportion of those who have no definite opinion yet is the largest. The higher is the income, the more are the people inclined to think that Euro-integration will improve their life. In the group of the respondents with the highest income, more than a half of the respondents are certain that their life will further improve after the accession to the EU. At the same time, in the group with the lowest income the number of the people believing that their life will grow worse is the greatest. Less than 1/5 of the respondents in the lowest income group are optimistic about their future. In the group of respondents with medium income the proportion of those who think that everything will remain the same is the greatest. Thus, a great proportion of the people are convinced that the accession to the European Union can hardly change anything in their present life: he who presently lives in easy circumstances, is inclined to think that in future he will live even better, while he who lives in bad conditions is very pessimistic also about his future.

One more tendency can be noted: the lower is the income, the larger is the proportion of those people who will not vote. Thus, the most efficient factor for propagating the accession of Estonia to the EU is a general rise in the standard of living.

In spite of the smallness of Estonia, the attitude of respondents, living in various regions of Estonia, towards Estonia's accession to the EU appears to be different, but differences depend mainly from other social issues. The polls show that age of the respondents does not have definite influence on their attitude concerning the accession to the European Union. It can be noted that, in general, the number of firm supporters of the accession to the EU was among younger respondents about three times as high as that of opponents, while among older respondents the ratio was two to one. Among older respondents, the number of those who would not vote was somewhat greater than that in average, while among middle-aged persons a relatively greater proportion of the people had not decided yet whether they were in favour or against the accession; however, they intended to vote at the future referendum.

The general public attaches different degrees of importance to the protection of different spheres of Estonia's interests at the accession negotiations with the European Union. The protection of Estonia's labour market from foreign labour and of its agriculture are considered to be more important tasks than the protection of other spheres. Concerning other spheres, greater importance was attributed to the protection of Estonia's interests in the spheres of culture and language, as well as to the protection of the local industry.

Estonians' and non-Estonians' expectations about the impact of the accession on various spheres of the life in Estonia differ significantly. While on the basis of the statements the respondents made on their general attitude one could conclude that the attitude of non-Estonians towards the accession to the European Union is somewhat more favourable than that of Estonians, the figure above does not permit to conclude this. With respect to most spheres of Estonia's life, the expectations of Estonians about the future impact of the accession to the European Union are much more positive than those of non-Estonians. This applies especially to such spheres like security, learning and travelling possibilities, trading, and relations with other countries. A great majority of Estonians believe that the accession to the EU will have a favourable impact on these spheres. With respect to one side of the influence of the accession, however, the expectations of non-Estonians are still more favourable than those of Estonians, namely, with respect to the relations with Russia. On the basis of these data, it can be stated that non-Estonians are significantly more guarded in their evaluation of the accession to the EU; it can be said even that, with respect to the majority of spheres of life, they are more sceptical than Estonians.

The optimism of the people of Estonia about the accession to the EU has diminished more and more together with complications in local political situation. It is evident that the hope that their personal life might change for the better is lost, although the main reason for the people to support Estonia's accession to the EU are not personal benefits.

Summing up, it can be said that the awareness of the people of Estonia of the matters of the European Union and their reaction to the information they have got are not linearly related to each other. This means that one cannot always easily predict what changes in the attitude will be brought about by a better awareness of the people of the matters of the EU. People in Estonia are, presently, interested in information pertaining to the substance of the accession: what changes will it bring about for an ordinary person. People would like to be informed about details, however, our press does, as a rule, provide no information about that.

New perioddiscussion about EU and NATO

A new period started in 2000. First time in public opinion a share of sceptics overbalanced a share of optimists. New dimensions to the European co-operation emerged together with increasing possibility to join with NATO. If EU enlargement is related mainly to cultural independence and political sovereignty of nation state then possible NATO eastward enlargement will bring along discussions related to Estonian territory and geopolitical security. After last NATO enlargement it became more realistic perspective for the Baltic States.

According to opinion of leading Estonian politicians there is one way for guarantee of Estonian stability and security – joining with EU and NATO, it is not understood as factors creating new European or global dimensions of local people’s identity. As Andres Tarand, the Chairman of Foreign Affairs Committee argued in foreign policy discussion in Estonian Parliament (November 1999) - the starting points for defining Estonia’s foreign policy priorities are the following: globalisation as one of the ever deepening processes in the modern world, and three aspects of the Estonian states – as a nation state, small state, and border state. There are a number of conflicts between globalisation and nation state, but also between the internal balance of the recently independent states and European integration. On the other hand, the concurrent status of Estonia as a small state and border state means that these conflicts have to be overcome as a priority in order to maintain sovereignty. Foreign policy priorities that arise from the task of optimisation and that have been generally agreed on in Estonia are therefore membership in the EU and NATO. As a third priority, regional co-operation within the Baltic Sea region could be mentioned, stressing also the possibilities of additional positive regulations with Russia. “

Predictions, that in Estonia questions of sovereignty and change of the Constitution awake strong resistance and broad atmosphere against the EU, have not been fulfilled. The accelerated moving of Estonia in the direction of the EU became less popular but loss of sovereignty has been a concern of small group of active sceptics. The comparison of the findings of numerous sociologists shows that both the interest on the European Union and the being informed on the EU have improved within the last years but European enthusiasm has not grown.

Chart 1

As a consequence an essential change will probably take place in the next time both in the Euro-discussion and in the voting behaviour of the people. The relatively linear and one-dimensional schemes of decision of the people will be replaced by multidimensional voting strategies which outcomes will be harder to be predicted. There are signs that confirm existing hard „Euro-doubt“ in Estonia, some people are relatively irresolute about the decision-making concerning the European Union. However, there may be a certain basis for speaking about internal oppositions between generations and various categories of the population and their choice of priority strategies for European integration.

In Estonia, the positive example of Ireland is well-known and very often the maintenance of Ireland's cultural identity and its further development is used as an argument, which could help working out a future perspective of Estonians in the EU and a new collective identity of the Estonian people. It is interesting that EU-experiences of Estonian neighbours – Finland and Sweden – are used less.

Euro-scepticism as a keyword has gained a rather ambiguous and contradictory response in the public opinion of Estonian elite. The magazine of the cultural elite, "Eesti Ekspress" (supplement - "Areen") has published an idea, which tries to express the attitudes of the elite at the beginning of the 20th century in a different light - "we have been Estonians, but we will get Europeans!" This vision expressed by Andres Langemets for the future of losing identity cannot be misunderstood. The gradual change of the national "face" of the Estonians (as the author sees it, an orientation towards others) is described as a national destruction, which occurs during several generations. The author as a sceptic is certain, that "the path chosen by the people is the national path; projected to the future and acceptable".

For several other Estonian humanitarians EU is also interpreted in sceptical way. It is considered a supreme power from outside having certain negative feature. For example, social philosopher Eiki Berg argued on the basis of critical analysis of discourses that, „there is as yet no consensus on either the significance of a „new“ Estonia or its regional belonging. Both visions, the „old nation state as the frontier of Western civilisation“ as well as the „new multinational state in a gateway position“ are almost equally valid but neither has so far been put into use. The current model of a Western-oriented ethnic state with a divided society is a product of overlapping constructed and real boundaries, constituting in reality a conflicting and contradictory vision.“

Efforts of the group of Estonian Euro-sceptics are directed to necessity to change the Constitution. In 1998-2000 Euro-sceptical line became step by step more popular, and the discussion has got serious dimension as sceptics have published good analysis.

Although their contribution to the political discussion has been very restrained, they expressed some clear warnings. A minor importance of Estonian national identity and an increase of the European identity, propagating the unity of the EU accompany accession to the EU, until it will possibly dominate already the next generation of Estonians. This has been also rather a political than academic discussion. They have warned also about huge increase of prices and low compatibility of Estonian economics.

At the same time it is undisputed, that the expectations in many fields greatly exceed the real possibilities of the EU and in the Estonian context limit more natural seeming solutions. Setbacks and failures in the field of business are connected - well founded and sometimes even groundless - with Europe. Failures are used to discredit the EU-representatives of a certain policy in election campaigns and private conflicts. Criticism of the EU can get to populism once in a while. This all leaves marks at the image of the EU. The unclear meaning of Euro-scepticism is mainly characterising the present state of the society, it also mirrors the state of the distorted discussions that were provoked by Estonia’s future joining of the European Union.

By the representatives of the Estonian political elite integration of Estonia into the European Union has considered as a political process. This integration in the EU is accompanied by economic developments as well as the implementation of standards in Estonia that are indispensable for the functioning of the Common Market. Strong argument and logical consequence of the mentioned changes for Estonia as a future member of the EU would be a step by step increase of the security guarantees offered by the EU.

In general, during last year there appeared a significant political differentiation: parties who support quick integration with EU, and parties who want to slow down the speed of integration. According to opinion of Mart Nutt, member of the Riigikogu (Parliament), geo-political situation pushes Estonia to quicker integration. He argues also that EU integration represents rather a process of protection of European and local identity than promotes globalisation and weakening of local and regional identification. Opponents from different small parties who have made common release about Nice summit and affirmed that Estonia is not ready to join EU, because economic circumstances are not sure about positive results of quick joining. According to their opinion Estonia must wait until EU will finish its internal reforms.

At the same time, an intensified battle with Europe concerning enlargement policy could be one of the most important mechanisms in initiating a real discussion in the society. Very often introducing debates replace the exchange of ideas of the political groups and also those directly concerning the interests of the people. One thing is clear - because of the lack of concrete information on the economy, the social policy system, the labour market system etc. important issues there is still large part of the population who cannot decide on their vote or will have adverse opinion about the European Union. This will be a serious resistance to carry out successful referendum.

In a situation where the proportion of indefinite answers (hard to say, I have not decided yet) was great, the public opinion was very unstable (political events or scandals of minor importance may effect an abrupt change in it). Today we see that the amount of indefinite answers is diminished – most of these people support now sceptical views about quick EU integration. Despite of the data affirming that only about 10-12% of people have no definite opinion about integration with the EU, we can say that these attitudes are quite incidental. Various occasional (external) and short-time factors may cause abrupt changes in the public opinion. (For example, unstable political or economic circumstances in Russia may change the negative trend in public opinion into positive during a quite short period.) It is clear that in such situation the change in the public opinion about the EU is too unstable for drawing any more fundamental conclusions.



Popularity of the Government is closely related to the formation of EU opinion.

Recent analyses show that decreasing popularity of EU enlargement is related to decreasing popularity of the ruling political coalition. This phenomenon shows that EU enlargement is still considered by people as a Governments’ affair. The Government’s information campaigns do not activate people to attain this certain object. Some social scientists have argued that this is one of outcomes of Estonian high transformation speed that has used all recourses of optimism.

Chart 2

Chart 3

Source: EMOR

According to recent opinion trends Western Europeans are afraid of possible “overflow” of Eastern European workforce if free movement principle will be applied. Actually, Estonian people are afraid if our “local brains” will emigrate to the countries of higher welfare status. For example, German people average income is approximately 8-10 times higher than Estonian one. Social security system in Western European countries is also more beneficial. Therefore – the fears are different (controversial) but the problem is same. Probable suspend of the principle of labour free movement is obviously useful for some stabilisation period for both camps.

At the present day, the greater part of the people of Estonia cannot yet predict with any certainty its future in the European context. Specific interests of Estonia lie, actually, in the fields of employment and competitiveness. People are interested mainly in the opportunity to overcome the hardships of social life and they hope that the European Union with its well-developed economy might substantially contribute to rising the standard of living and creating new jobs.

Political leaders have accused mass media about inclined information concerning the EU (EU is characterised very often as over-regulated and bureaucratic political body). In the dialogue between opinion leaders, public speakers and ordinary people special attention should be given to sectors of the economy and of the population where there is a particularly strong demand for information about enlargement and its likely effects. In addition, the negotiation process should be more transparent in Estonia and more specialists should be engaged into this process.