On Second Thought

Sandra Liedskalna, a fruit seller in Latvia's capital of Riga, is getting evil looks these days. As an early snow falls on the marketplace, Liedskalna is offering steep discounts on her imperfect yet fresh, honey-scented apples. Her arrival has spelled bad news for nearby fruit stands. Their produce bears the telltale blue and yellow stickers of the European Union, and the EU-imported lemons, bananas and apples are large and perfectly shaped. But they also cost a lot more. Liedskalna prices her homegrown apples however she pleases. The neighboring fruit stand, she says, is run by "a pair of hired hands"--a city dweller "who probably thinks that apples are made on an assembly line."

Such sniping may seem far removed from the high politics of Brussels and EU expansion. But these subtle tensions in Riga's public squares and markets represent the front lines in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Baltic people--many of whom are asking just why they should drop their hard-earned independence from the Soviets to join yet another "union." Late last week France and Germany hammered out a deal on farm subsidies that brought the EU much closer to expanding its ranks, just days after Ireland passed a referendum approving the body's plans for new members. But not everyone along this eastern fringe of Europe is eager to get into the club. A poll conducted by the European Commission this summer, supported by various local polls, makes the ambivalence clear: only 38 percent of Estonians, 46 percent of Latvians and 55 percent of Lithuanians are for joining. With referendums on joining the EU planned for next year in all three countries, huge chunks of the populace remain either undecided or against union altogether.

The lukewarm numbers are surprising to many, especially since all of these countries want to join NATO, even if they have to spend tens of millions meeting qualification requirements (invitations are expected in November). After centuries of European occupation and decades of Soviet repression, "security" is the key word here. Put simply, the skeptics believe that NATO will provide it, the EU won't.

Many view the EU as a giant, paper-shifting bureaucracy that will devour the region's newfound independence. Others have more general fears of a Western European land grab, rising housing and utility rates, or the loss of national identity. NATO, on the other hand, is seen as a security blanket that won't intrude into the private lives and pocketbooks of each Baltic citizen. Says Uno Silberg, an Estonian leader of the No the EU Movement: "The EU is just another superpower that wants to occupy us. Only this time, instead of moving west from Moscow, it is moving east from Brussels."

So far, diehard Euro-skeptics like Silberg appear to represent a small slice of the population in each country. But the vocal band has been making itself heard. This summer Latvian farmers threatened to start forest fires to protest EU farm goods flooding their markets. Similar protests could flare up any time in Lithuania--where the agricultural sector is the largest and least reformed of the three states. EU critics in Estonia, which has passed some of the most radical free-market reforms, fear admission into the body would reverse many of its economic advances. They argue that EU membership could equal a return to the backward socialist policies they just escaped.

Political leaders are eager to address the concerns. But they almost unanimously answer with the following response: what is our alternative? "If we were already a member of NATO, our eastern neighbor was Sweden and we were sitting on oil fields, then yes, maybe then we could discuss the issue," says Estonian lawmaker and former foreign minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Pro-EU politicians argue that what the modern-day Baltic countries need for security is an army of foreign direct investors, not men in camouflage. For them, the real threat is not Russian tanks rolling past the Benettons on Latvia's cobblestone alleyways, but "softer" security problems that are more the province of the EU than NATO. "We are 90 kilometers away from one of Russia's Chernobyl-type reactors," says Ilves. "If something happens and the wind blows the wrong way, we'll have two thirds of our people dead, or 3 million Russians on our border. That is something the EU, not NATO, would handle."

In the end it will be the ability of supporters to overcome ingrained national traits that may eventually decide the outcome. "Balts are just very skeptical people--about everything," says Estonian pollster Andrus Saar. In other words, EU membership might look as perfectly shaped and inviting as those exquisite apples and lemons in Riga's central market. But many would just as soon choose the familiar--and safe--lumpy option.