"An historic day" - analyst Jiri Pehe on the referendum result
Jiri Pehe is a former advisor to Vaclav Havel and an independent political analyst who has closely monitored the results of the referendum on EU accession in the Czech Republic. Earlier on Saturday he spoke to Radio Prague's Jan Velinger, saying there was little doubt the referendum result was a decision of some historic magnitude:
"I think that this is really a historic day for the Czech Republic and Czech society because, quite frankly, when one considers the political spectrum where two large political parties are either anti-EU or Euro-sceptics, no one could expect this result. So, I think the citizens of the Czech Republic decided on the basis of their own considerations and they decided, in my opinion, very well."
What do you think about the estimated 55 percent voter turn-out? Do you feel that that is a high enough number, considering that this was the very first referendum Czechs were able to take part in?
"I think it is not a bad number because in the Czech Republic we did not have any minimum for making the referendum valid. I think that was, quite frankly, a disincentive for many people to vote. They thought it would be a "Yes" vote no matter what, so that they didn't have to take part. I think that 55 percent is not a bad turn-out, and I am personally surprised so many turned up to vote."
In the days and weeks ahead of the referendum we were all witnesses to countless public opinion polls - many suggesting that there would be marked differences for EU support in cities as compared to the smaller towns and villages. It was also expected that there would be wider differences in the voter demographic between say students and professionals, younger and older citizens - in fact according to one survey the only real marked difference is that there was a greater, though expected drop in support among pro-Communist Party voters. Were you yourself surprised by the relative balance across the board?
"I was definitely surprised by the fact that so many older people voted in favour of the EU. It seems that when we followed various opinion polls and surveys and discussions that the older generation would have a greater tendency to be opposed to membership in the EU, simply because they could be afraid that they would lose advantages, their pensions, and things of that sort. And I think that the fact that they decided that this was not a main reason to possibly vote against EU membership that what was important was the future of the country was secure - I think that that is a very good testimony. When we watched the TV reports many said that they were doing this for their children and that was a very good sign."
Among many there may be a sense of euphoria now that the decision has been made and the Czechs will join as of May 1st, 2004. But, there are still apprehensions concerning what must be done in terms of bringing the economy in line with richer EU member states. That, compounded with the fact that the country now faces budget cuts and public finance reforms - could still bring a cold shower for the Czechs, could it not?
"Well I think that the Czech Republic, no matter who is running the country, has to reform its public finances. It will be difficult reform with some belt tightening - we all know that. On the other hand, we also want to become a member of the Eurozone, the common currency zone in a few years, and without those reforms we would not be able to do that. On top of that, I think the Czech economy could be in real danger if we do not start with those reforms. So, I personally think that our membership in the European Union can help us with those kinds of reforms."
There is some debate now, presented by the opposition Civic Democrats, over whether there should be another, future referendum on the new EU draft constitution that has just been agreed on at the European Convention, and must be ratified by all 25 EU states. What is your view on that debate?
"Having a referendum on such an important issue as the EU constitution is of course quite legitimate and I wouldn't want to dispute that proposal. Whether it will happen or not is another question, because we do not have a special law on referendums that would allow us to simply hold referendums by, for example, collecting a certain number of signatures. On the other hand I think that the ODS - the Civic Democrats - proposed this 2nd referendum in an attempt to undermine this weekend's referendum. I think all this talk of this future European super-state and how we have to be alert and careful and have a discussion and possibly hold a 2nd referendum was not at all at this point in time an effort to have a serious discussion on the issue."