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Hungarians Vote Yes to EU Membership

Hungarians Vote Yes to EU Membership
Sun Apr 13, 7:22 AM ET

By KARL PETER KIRK, Associated Press Writer

BUDAPEST, Hungary - Voters in Hungary have agreed to be part of the historic eastward expansion of the European Union strongly endorsing economic unification with their more developed neighbors to the west.

The National Election Office said 83.8 percent of ballots cast in Saturday's vote were for membership. Turnout was 45.6 percent, but the vote was valid because more than 2 million Hungarians voted yes.
Some voters said they voted for the EU despite fears that the lowering of trade barriers could cost jobs. "I hope it'll be for the best but I am afraid that we will be disappointed in the end," said Maria Pinker, 50.


Firework displays and small street parties greeted the result in low-key celebrations around the country.

"No one can doubt that the real winners today are Hungary's children," Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy said after results were announced. "This is a cause for celebration."

The EU head office in Brussels, Belgium, on Sunday welcomed the vote.

"Hungarian voters have signaled their clear choice to build their future within a strong, united Europe," the European Commission (news - web sites) said in a statement. "This decision marks the end of Hungary's tragic separation from the European family of democratic nations."

Medgyessy will sign the accession agreement with the EU on Wednesday in Athens. Membership is set to begin on May 1, 2004, after all 15 current EU members ratify the agreement that would add Hungary and nine other countries.

New members include other former Soviet satellites, including Poland, Estonia, and the Czech Republic.

The lower-than-predicted turnout in Hungary was a disappointment for the Socialist-led government, which had presented the vote as a historic opportunity to join the richer half of Europe after four decades of communist rule.

"I am sorry that the turnout did not reach the 50 percent mark," said Endre Juhasz, the minister for EU affairs.

The government had earlier predicted a turnout of at least 60 percent after earmarking $23 million for a campaign in support of membership.

As the result was announced, reactions were mixed in Budapest.

"It's great that we'll soon be a real part of Western Europe. It's something we've wanted for years," said Ildiko Suto, 40, a cell phone store manager. "I'm looking forward to getting my EU passport."

Jozsef Peterfalvi, 31, a subway security guard, said that he was afraid that EU membership could push up prices while wages remain low.

"If the government does something to help ordinary people then membership might be for the best," said Peterfalvi, who earns the minimum wage of $230. "If the E.U. makes prices rise, then the E.U. will kill me."

Former Prime Minister Viktor Orban said more had to be done to make the nearly 600,000 Hungarians who voted against membership feel that joining the EU was also in their interest.

"We need to start development programs to get ready for membership," Orban said. "What binds us together is not whether we voted yes or no, but that we are Hungarians and that we want to be the winners of the future."

Turnout appeared to reflect the economic patterns of wealth in the country, with a much lower turnout in eastern Hungary.

"That's where the most poor people live, those with a lower education level, who feel that they are not going to benefit much from EU membership, at least not directly," sociologist Antal Bohm said.

A referendum March 9 referendum in Malta had a yes vote of nearly 53.7 percent, with turnout of more than 90 percent.

Slovenes voted March 23. Turnout there was around 60 percent, and nearly 90 percent of voters were for membership.

- VICTORIA BECKHAM


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