Hungary's government and newspapers have hailed the overwhelming success of the country's referendum on joining the European Union, although there was concern about the lower than expected turnout.

Nearly 84% voted in favour of EU membership in yesterday’s referendum. The result means Hungary can now join the 15-nation bloc in 2004, along with up to nine other candidate states from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

The Hungarian Prime Minister, Peter Medgyessy, announced the result personally to a crowd celebrating on the banks of the river Danube in Budapest.

‘Allow me to officially announce that the Hungarian republic will be a member of the European Union,’ he told the jubilant throng.

Hungarians were asked in the referendum to answer the question: ‘Do you agree that Hungary should become a member of the European Union?’

By the time 99.18% of ballot papers had been counted, 83.76% of respondents had voted in favour and 16.2% had voted against.

The outcome means Mr Medgyessy's centre-left government can now sign the EU membership treaty in Athens on April 16, alongside up to nine other candidates -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. All are due to join the EU in May 2004.

Hungary's support rate of more than 80% could raise the appetite for EU membership in the more sceptical Poland and Czech Republic, which are both due to hold referendums in June.

At the same time, officials in Hungary were left wondering why the turnout was so low despite the massive 'yes' campaign in the run-up to the ballot.

Only 45.56% of voters turned out to cast their ballots, well below the 70% the government had hoped for.