Perhaps that was the strategy of the state-sponsored campaign - to let EU-sceptics waste all their arguments before the pro-EU side seriously entered the battlefield?
Estonians voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the European Union in a referendum on Sunday. This result was predicted by many opinion polls just a few weeks before the referendum. But Estonia experienced several moments when the success of the Yes camp was not that clear. The final result therefore demonstrated a kind of statism – trust in the state – and its most honourable leaders because, in the end, people followed the official line on the EU. In particular, it proved the remarkable role of the president, as Mr. Rüütel has been the most trusted state institution in the debates on Estonia’s EU membership. Mass media have been the least reliable source, according to opinion polls. Yet, some credit should be given to the pre-referendum activities, although the European campaign started very late.
Only a year ago, European matters were not of much interest to many Estonians. Moreover, during the accession negotiations, the content of these talks was somehow kept silent by state authorities. They say that thanks to this silence Estonia got a better deal from Brussels – better membership conditions written into the Accession treaty. The country’s EU membership was also pretty much a formal issue for Estonian political parties as accession to the EU was taken as an official line not to be questioned.
More intensive campaigning by both the Yes and the No camp started just a couple of months before the vote on 14 September. Several EU-sceptic movements started touring the country and more concrete pros and cons for entering the EU appeared in public debates. Many predicted higher sugar prices in the future; some claimed that EU integration is necessary for only a limited number of officials so that they can have higher salaries in Brussels. Such arguments were much more understandable to the people and as a result many took these statements as a kind of alternative to the official position about Estonia’s historical situation and cultural background.
But then this quiet ground was shaken by an event – the Estonian Centre Party’s congress that was held in Tartu in August. This party was the most successful in the last general elections, winning the biggest number of seats in the parliament (Riigikogu), but was left outside the coalition. As a result, it took the position of the leading opposition party and also kept its line on the country’s prospects in the EU secret. Even the charismatic leader of the Centre party, Edgar Savisaar, who used to say a lot about the EU before the elections, suddenly had very little to say or no comments whatsoever on this issue.
The reason behind this was probably the willingness to stand by Estonian
EU-sceptics and, even though Mr. Savisaar often publicly claimed that voting is a personal matter and therefore should not be influenced, the party’s congress declared that a No to the EU is the best answer for Estonia. This unexpected declaration most likely mobilised other political forces as well as the public, providing stronger motivation to participate in the debate.
It should also be stressed that the government tried to develop a very neutral campaign just to promote participation in the referendum. Savisaar’s statement somehow forced it to take a position. After all, why should one only promote participation? Apparently this question also appeared in the minds of coalition parties, which then, at the end of August, came out with their billboard-campaign – something that the audience sometimes thought of as being too politicised. Still, by that time, the No camp had already used up all its main arguments against joining the European block and simply had no more power to persuade society by bringing in new reasoning. Perhaps that was the strategy of the state-sponsored campaign – to let EU-sceptics waste all their arguments before the pro-EU side seriously entered the battlefield?
Finally, evaluating the debates, one might also recall the wide spread concept of two Estonia’s: one for the poor people and another for the rich. Joining the EU was labelled a project for the Estonian elite and it seems that this division is here to stay, like when talking about the new constitution for Europe, for example. Still, as the poor won’t go anywhere either, it was and will be good to finally have critical discussions on European affairs.