For the first time in history the Czech people will be able to decide about their future in a national referendum. On Tuesday, Parliament approved, in its first reading, a bill which will pave the way to a referendum on EU membership next spring .
The question which Czechs will address in the referendum is "Do you agree to Czech membership in the EU under the conditions stipulated in the accession agreement?" There is broad political consensus both on the need for a referendum and on the wording of this question so the bill is expected to have a smooth and swift passage through both houses of Parliament.
But do Czechs have a clear idea of what EU membership would entail?
As the term of projected accession nears, an increasing number of Czechs are ringing the foreign ministry's EU information line, asking how EU membership may effect their lives. Operators take around 800 calls a day which suggests that Czechs have plenty of unanswered questions.
Between now and the spring vote, the government intends to spend 200 million crowns answering them. How the money should be spent has evoked plenty of controversy on the Czech political scene. The government wants an upbeat pro-EU information campaign, which would include brochures in every postbox, billboards, radio and TV programs. The opposition Civic Democrats and the Communist Party insist that the government should provide "less bombastic" and more balanced information, and publicize some of the drawbacks of EU membership. "We cannot advise the public to vote in favour of EU membership unless they are informed objectively about both the positive and the negative aspects of such a move," Jan Zahradil of the Civic Democratic Party told journalists. The Communist Party is non-committal about the recommendation it plans to give its own voters. However, opinion polls suggest that people are tired of bickering on the matter and rather than party recommendations they simply want more information in order to be able to make up their own minds. According to the GfK research agency, the number of Czechs in favour of EU entry is growing, while the number of EU opponents has decreased. The outcome of a September poll shows that 53 % of Czechs would vote in favour of EU membership, which is 12 % more than in April of this year. The number of respondents opposed to EU entry has dropped from 36 to 25 % over the same period. Political analysts note that in this country the support rate for EU membership tends to fluctuate and the next few months will be crucial. If Czechs reject membership in the EU next spring then it would be another two years before such a referendum could be repeated.
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