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EU: Irish Referendum Holds Key To Enlargement

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Republic of Ireland lies at the western extremity of Europe, facing the Atlantic. But it appears fated to play a key role in the European Union's plans to expand eastward into the heart of the continent. That's because, alone among the 15 EU member-states, the republic is holding a referendum on whether to accept the Nice treaty -- the controversial document setting out institutional reforms that would make space in the EU for the Easterners. A "no" vote in the Irish referendum would stall the whole expansion process and, reports RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke, there are signs it may be a close vote.

Prague, 7 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ireland, a member of the European Union for nearly 30 years, is seen as one of the countries which has benefited most from membership. In that time span, the country of some 3.5 million people has changed from a backwater mired in poverty to the most vibrant economy in the EU.

A young and motivated workforce, membership in the EU's huge single market, strong foreign investment -- mainly from the United States -- and Union support programs have all played their part in the transformation.

As one would therefore expect, Ireland has always been one of the most loyal of the Union's members. But in common with most Europeans, the Irish man-in-the street knows little of the complicated inner workings of the EU. For instance, a survey just published by the EU's official "Eurobarometer" service shows that most Europeans cannot identify key Union policies, and that there is only lukewarm support overall for EU membership. The European Commission calls this lack of public knowledge "worrying."

Alone among the EU's members, Ireland is putting the Nice treaty -- which spells out institutional reforms needed for expansion -- to a popular vote. Ratification in the other 14 members will be left up to their parliaments.

The Irish government has opened a campaign for a "yes" vote in the referendum, which is now set for June 7. But the campaign appears to have made little impact so far.

Our correspondent spoke to some of the people who will be voting on the Nice treaty. One was John Murphy, a barman in the western city of Galway. While supporting further EU integration as a logical process, he acknowledged he was not aware of details of the Nice treaty:

"Ah, I'm not really up to scratch on it, so I couldn't really tell you [what I think of it]."

Another Irish citizen, Carla McGrath, whose brother owns a garage in the western village of Tuam, also favors further EU integration. But she too said she has not received any information from the government on the implications of the Nice treaty. And she does not want constitutional changes that make EU central authorities more powerful at the expense of member states:

"I think they should leave a lot of the power with the [individual] governments of countries like Ireland, I think the power they have [in Brussels] at the moment is enough, and I think Ireland has enough as well."

An Irish government press representative, Mandy Johnson, defends Dublin's attempts to inform the people about the treaty.

"The [Irish] Department of Foreign Affairs has started quite a vigorous household information campaign and the minister of foreign affairs has undertaken a series of public engagements to explain exactly what the Nice treaty is all about."

Will that be enough to ensure a positive vote for a treaty that is crucial to EU enlargement? In the past, the answer to that would almost certainly have been "yes," since Irish voters would have approved almost any pro-European integration measure.

But media commentators now see attitudes in a confident and prosperous Ireland as more independent-minded than previously. Some point to damage done to Irish public opinion by a public quarrel three months ago between Irish Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and EU authorities in Brussels.

In that row, the EU sharply rebuked Ireland over its 2001 budget, which it called inflationary because of its tax cuts and generous public spending programs. Given that Ireland is the single most successful economy in the EU at the moment, many Irish saw themselves as being punished for success.

One analyst, Dan O'Brien of the Economist Intelligence Unit, sees another factor as playing a role in changing Irish public opinion. O'Brien wrote recently ("European Voice," April 11) about what he sees as the growing "Americanization" of Ireland.

He notes that in 1998 Germany was a more important market for Irish exports than the United States. But in 2000, the United States is likely to have accounted for a share equivalent to Germany, France, and Italy combined.

O'Brien says the increasing warmth between Ireland and the United States impacts "not least on the business community and the politicians, traditionally the strongest advocates of closer ties with Europe."

O'Brien also notes that the record of past referenda on the EU in Ireland shows that, with each new vote, a smaller proportion of the public has supported further integration.

But spokeswoman Mandy Johnson sees the long, successful association between Ireland and the EU as likely to produce a positive result in next month's referendum:

"The consensus really is that we in Ireland have used our participation in Europe to our advantage, and it has been very successful for our country, and we have used the resources they have made available to us very, very wisely. I think that for the most part the balance of people would say we have done better by being in Europe than not being in it."

Still, many people in governments across Central and Eastern Europe will be holding their breath on June 7, in the hope that the Irish people will agree to the enlargement process going forward.