Slovaks celebrate vote to join European Union

Monday, May 19, 2003

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- Slovaks celebrated Sunday after endorsing European Union membership in a referendum that EU leaders hope will send an enthusiastic signal to the rest of the continent.

Although the referendum was largely symbolic and Parliament still has the final say on whether to join the bloc, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda hailed the positive vote as an act of self-determination.

It was the "first time in history of our country when we had decided about our path ourselves," Dzurinda said.

Slovakia broke with communism in 1989 and split peacefully from Czechoslovakia a decade ago to become independent.

A total of 92.46 percent voted for EU membership with only 6.20 percent against, the central referendum commission said.

The results confirmed a declaration of victory by Dzurinda on Saturday. "We're entering a completely new era as a part of a united Europe," Dzurinda said Saturday in downtown Bratislava.

Hundreds, including government officials, celebrated and danced in Bratislava's downtown.

Yet only 52.1 percent of the electorate participated in the two days of voting, just slightly over the 50 percent minimum required for the balloting to be declared valid.

Four previous referendums on other topics foundered because voter apathy resulted in turnout below 50 percent.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder hailed the referendum as a "historic event for Slovakia and an important signal for the rest of the membership process." Ten new nations, including Slovakia, are slated to officially join the bloc in May 2004, bringing EU membership to 25.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer also said the results represented a "clear signal for the upcoming referendums in other countries," on joining the EU.

Besides Slovakia, Malta, Hungary, Slovenia and Lithuania approved the membership in a referendum. Poland and the Czech Republic hold theirs in June, while Latvia and Estonia will do so in September. Only Cyprus has decided not to hold a referendum on membership.

Dzurinda came to power in 1998 and launched swift political and economic reforms with the goals of memberships in EU and NATO. Slovakia is also on track to join the defensive alliance.

Clearly concerned that low turnout could invalidate the outcome, leaders made a last appeal for citizens to vote just hours before polls closed Saturday.

Vladimir Krejci, a baker and a father of two, said he ignored the referendum as irrelevant.

"The state has never done a thing for me," he said.

Others were elated with the results.

"Those who did not vote are fools," said Vladimir Hronsky, a businessman.

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