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EU: Irish Referendum Throws Shadow Over Expansion

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Irish voters' rejection of the European Union's Nice Treaty in Thursday's (7 June) referendum has abruptly posed a big question mark about the EU's eastward expansion process. Although Union leaders have sought to reassure the Eastern candidates by saying their accession negotiations will continue unabated, no one really knows what's going to happen. One key figure, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, is quoted today as saying enlargement will not be possible unless Ireland can find a way to ratify the treaty. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at some of the options.

Prague, 11 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The shock rejection by Irish voters of the European Union's Nice Treaty has cast a shadow over the process of eastward enlargement.

In Thursday's (7 June) referendum, less than one-third [30 percent] of the eligible electorate actually voted. But of those who did vote, a solid majority -- almost 54 percent -- turned down the treaty, which is meant to reform the Union institutions in order to make space for up to 12 candidate countries. Irish voters apparently feared, among other things, that accepting the complicated and controversial document would shift too much political power to Brussels, and also could compromise Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality.

Ireland alone put the Nice Treaty to a popular vote. In the other 14 EU member states, it is simply to be ratified by parliaments. As all member states must grant approval to the Nice Treaty, Ireland's rejection means that, as things stand, the reform document cannot come into force.

That does not necessarily stop the accession process dead in its tracks, however. At least the first-wave Eastern candidates -- Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, and possibly Poland -- could still be admitted under the provisions of the EU's 1997 Amsterdam Treaty.

EU leaders have said the accession negotiations will go ahead unaffected by the Irish vote. EU Commission President Romano Prodi told reporters in Luxembourg today:

"I would like to stress that the commitment of the European Commission to go on with European Union enlargement remains absolutely unchanged. Negotiations will continue according to schedule and in this we are making considerable progress."

But the question is, what happens in the months -- if not years -- to come? Will EU member states actually go ahead with the admission of a substantial number of new members without a reform treaty intended to make expansion feasible? EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen is quoted (in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung") today as saying enlargement will not be possible if Ireland cannot find a way to ratify the Nice Treaty.

Analysts note that the treaty, agreed upon six months ago, represents a hard-fought compromise in which present member states sought to secure their positions of influence ahead of what has been called the "diluting" effect caused by expansion. Analysts doubt, therefore, that a renegotiation of the treaty to suit Ireland is practicable. Heather Grabbe of the London-based Center for European Reform puts it this way:

"It would be very difficult to renegotiate [the treaty] at this stage, particularly on the big issue of the voting weights [in the Council of Ministers] and the [number of] seats [per country] in the European Parliament. These are issues of power politics. They are not just technical issues, they are really at the center of the power balance between the different member states, and of course, on their views on their role in Europe."

Grabbe sees as more likely the possibility that the EU could draw up a protocol to the Nice Treaty designed to meet Irish concerns -- notably, on the question of respect for Ireland's traditional military neutrality. She recalls that Denmark received such assurances on several areas of concern, when Danish voters initially rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. She says:

"What they could do is have a protocol which basically clarifies the Irish position and makes very clear that the Irish are not being forced into NATO -- or into military structures that they do not want to join -- by the development of the European security and defense policy, and [that] basically they can maintain their military neutrality while remaining members of the EU, regardless of enlargement and the development of the security policy."

Some commentators say that the Irish result risks being the start of a process that could hold further jolts for the EU's expansion plans. They point out that Austrian far-right leader Joerg Haider has been quick to demand a referendum in his country on enlargement -- a vote which could easily return a negative verdict and complicate the picture further.

Other analysts see the democratic process within the EU as paramount, despite the unpredictability which it brings. One such is Nicholas Whyte of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Whyte says:

"I would have thought that any of us who are concerned about democracy must want the Nice Treaty to have as much popular support as possible. And if that means having referenda, then we should have referenda and should campaign in favor of them. Of course, votes are always dangerous, but that's the price of living in a democracy."

Whyte says that the history of referenda on European integration measures over the past 30 years shows that only four were rejected -- a failure rate, he says, of about 10 percent.

In his remarks today, Commission President Prodi said only democratic processes can build a union that endures, despite the difficulties which must sometimes be faced along that path. And he acknowledged that the EU's present method of decision-making is too opaque and must be changed.

"Too often, our decisions are made during exhausting, late-night negotiations, from which normal citizens are excluded. I believe that from now on it is necessary to reform the way we discuss the future of Europe. The present format of intergovernmental negotiations does not function [well], and now that has been proven [with the rejection by Irish voters]."

Among those watching forthcoming developments inside the EU most keenly will be the Central and East European candidate countries. They have invested years of effort in a long preparation for membership.

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