14 – 20 February 2001

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Are people switching off to the EU issue?

By Miriam Dunn

The fact that a considerable number of respondents to last Friday's 'Xarabank' survey are still undecided about EU membership could mean that the public is suffering from an overdose of the subject.

Both the programme's presenter, Peppi Azzopardi and 'Iva' spokesman Austin Bencini admitted that the population may have had an overload of EU information, although a second line of thought was that the figure simply indicated people were still weighing up the pros and cons.

The survey found that 31.4% of the people would vote in favour of EU membership if a referendum were held today, while 38.5 would vote against. In the survey, in which there were 1,700 participants, 30.1 remained undecided.

Asked whether he accepted that the 'Iva' campaign had a tougher job to do in putting its arguments across, on the grounds that the anti-EU lobby, CNI, could arm itself with attractive ammunition, including gut issues such as sovereignty, Dr Bencini stressed that the pro-EU lobby did not want to become 'fundamentalist'.

"Yes, we are in favour of EU membership and we believe being inside the Union is in the best interests of the people," he said. "But at the end of the day, our campaign is aimed at ensuring the population has all the information it needs to understand the issues involved."

Dr Bencini believes that the significant figure in the 'Xarabank' survey is that of the 'undecided' respondents, which has remained almost constant at about 30%.

"The similarity in the 'don't know' figures serves as an indication that the debate is ongoing and that people are still making up their minds," he said. "We view this as a positive trend, meaning that the population is still weighing up the issues."

But Dr Bencini admitted there was a fear of over-exposure on the EU issue, which could affect both sides.

"The high number of 'undecided' respondents could give us an indication that people might be switching off from the debates, or perhaps pre-judging them," he said. "We therefore have to ensure the right information comes across to allow them to take an informed decision."

CNI spokeswoman Sharon Ellul Bonici believes the drop in the 'Yes' vote could be viewed largely as a consequence of the Nice summit, which, she said, provided a clearer picture of the EU's evolution towards a political union.

"Many have realised that the EU is not an equal partnership of Nation states, but a political union wherein population size is a crucial element of power within the union," she said. "Perhaps the weak manner in which the government dealt with the issue before the summit, and the fact that there was practically no one there to lobby during the actual summit, gave the impression that the government is not interested in effectively negotiating Malta's accession and is more interested in speeding up matters for Malta's joining as soon as possible, no matter how hard it would hit us."

Ms Ellul Bonici pointed out that much of what CNI had been stating concerning the political aspect of the union was proved correct by the results of the Nice Treaty.

"The image of a 'hapless Malta' with no significant clout to influence matters if it joins the EU is now clearer than it was when the last survey was held before the Nice summit," she said. "The given 'reasoning' that Malta should join the EU at the earliest in order to be able to influence the future of the EU is now obviously puerile and baseless since no matter how early Malta joins, with three members on the Council of Ministers (and that is where the clout is) it will have no significant influence anyway. Speed of accession, therefore, is not required, given the pains that such speed entails."

Ms Ellul Bonici commented that the pro-EU lobby had a difficult challenge, since the population was now realising what EU membership entails through direct observation and experience over time.

"This trend would be expected to prevail, no matter what the 'Iva' campaign does, and is generally being experienced in other applicant countries," she said.

Peppi Azzopardi believes it is significant that there are 10% of Nationalist party supporters who would vote against EU membership and 6.5% of MLP voters who would vote in favour.

"This might mean that we are at last drawing nearer to the cross-party concept," he said.

Mr Azzopardi said the result could be a result of a combination of three issues: misinformation, a lack of information and even an overload of information.

Asked whether he believes the figures are down to the enthusiastic anti-EU campaign launched by CNI, Mr Azzopardi admitted that the lobby group had done a very successful job.

"But it is always easier to persuade people to stay where they are rather than change, especially in a society renowned for its conservatism," he added. "People urging change always have a more difficult job."

"I think one of the problems is the fact that the government is trying to sell EU membership from the political perspective," Mr Azzopardi answered. "The anti-EU lobby, meanwhile, is pushing on the economic front and we all know that people are always interested in how change will affect their pockets."

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt