Shock waves reverberated around the European Union when the Republic of Ireland, in a referendum in June, rejected the EU's Nice Treaty. That's the document which is meant to reform the Union's institutions to make space for the Central and Eastern European newcomers. The treaty is considered politically necessary for the accession process, and Ireland's rejection has sown confusion. In Ireland, a debate has started on the issue of Nice and the development of the EU generally. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at the debate, which has the potential to affect the lives of millions of people in Central and Eastern Europe.
Dublin, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Polls consistently show that the Irish are among the most enthusiastic of Europeans, with a solid majority supporting European Union membership. So exactly why did the Irish reject at a referendum the EU's crucial Nice Treaty?
The treaty sets out institutional reforms in the Union to allow it to function with a greatly expanded membership as Central and Eastern European candidate members join. The treaty has its critics, particularly those who say it enables the big states to form voting blocs that can override the more numerous smaller states -- like Ireland.
Is this what turned the Irish voters against it? Or was it the perception that Ireland's precious neutrality is being undermined by the EU's developing common foreign and security policy, with its planned military force? Or was it just that voters did not understand the complex treaty, and in their bewilderment voted "No"?
All these factors played a part. Certainly the Irish government presented the case for Nice poorly. Only two days before the referendum, ordinary Irish in the outlying areas of the country told RFE/RL, they had not seen or heard anything to explain the treaty in a positive light.
By contrast, the "No" campaign was well organized, at least in Dublin, with numerous posters, one of which carried the slogan "If you don't know, vote no" -- an effective message.
Ratification of the Nice Treaty is considered to be politically essential if the EU's eastward enlargement is to go ahead, prospectively from 2004. The Dublin government is expected to hold a second referendum, at a date as yet unspecified. If that were to fail, the expansion process could be in jeopardy, because all 15 EU member states are required to approve the treaty.
Moving to better inform the people, the Irish government has formed the "National Forum on Europe," a panel to discuss EU issues, including enlargement. The forum's chairman, Senator Maurice Hayes, told RFE/RL: "Our purpose is not to direct people towards a particular conclusion, but to ensure there has been a worthwhile debate, and that people have been engaged, and have been better informed about the issues."
Hayes noted that two-thirds of the electorate did not participate in the 7 June referendum, mostly because they felt they did not have enough information to decide: "What is coming through in the forum to date is that there is no loss of Irish enthusiasm for Europe, and that there is no objection to enlargement per se, or to any of the applicant countries, I think they [the Irish public] were concerned possibly about the speed of enlargement, the nature of the Europe that would emerge, the governance of that Europe, and particularly other issues which had got drawn in, like neutrality."
The forum's latest meeting took place in November at Dublin Castle, in a reception hall filled with marble and tapestries, and attended by intellectuals and senior politicians. The elitist setting and discussion -- followed by a splendid lunch -- were far removed from the factories, marketplaces, and farms where the normal voters spend their time. Aware of the problem, Hayes says he plans to put his show on the road: "What we are proposing to do is to take the show out around the provincial towns of Ireland and try to engage people at a local level, and to try particularly to engage those people who were not stimulated to vote last time -- these were very largely young people and women -- and try to take the debate to them."
One result of the controversy surrounding the Nice Treaty is that euro-skeptic opposition elements have gained in profile. Trinity College academic Anthony Coughlan, who heads the National Platform, is one such critic. He outlined his objections to RFE/RL: "We are concerned really about the lack of democracy in the EU, the fact that it is all more centralized, and that more and more is coming under the influence of the bigger states. The most political thing in the Treaty of Nice, which causes us to object to it, is that it allows an inner group of EU states -- the bigger states -- to do their own thing, to set up a kind of federation, to harmonize taxes, to do all sorts of things like that among themselves, without the permission of the others."
Coughlan goes on to say that Nice changes the basic relationships upon which the EU was founded: "The basic principle of the EU up till now, insofar as it has been a legal partnership, has been that of equality between states that are formally equal, in that nothing new could be done without unanimity, everyone had to agree to fundamental change. Well, that principle is changed by the Treaty of Nice, and from now on if the treaty were ratified, the bigger states could do all sorts of things, even if the smaller states disagreed."
Coughlan says he hopes his countrymen will reject the treaty again in the planned second referendum.
A senior analyst with the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, David Duffy, is not so troubled by the Nice Treaty's implications. But he says it's time anyway to look at Ireland's overall relations with Brussels, in light of changing circumstances: "The nature of Ireland's relationship with the EU is changing. This is partly due to the fact that Ireland is going to move from being a net beneficiary to a net contributor [to the EU budget], and I think the fact that we will be then a net contributor to the EU budget does change our standing in the European Commission and the European community. And I think we need to think through that changing relationship; but I don't think Ireland is trying to distance itself from Europe."
Let's give the last word on the subject of Ireland and the EU not to an expert, but to an ordinary citizen. She's Helen Devan, a barmaid at the Nore Bar, beside the river of the same name in the southern city of Kilkenny. She believes further integration is inevitable, but at a price: "Nobody wants to be the one to stand up and stand in the way of progress. We have to move forward. We are a small country, we probably need the other countries. But having said that, I do feel we are going to lose some of our identity, and some of our culture. It has to happen."