The president of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, says the ratification of the Treaty of Nice -- signed by European Union leaders in 2000 to prepare the bloc for up to 12 new members -- remains an "indispensable" precondition for enlargement. Speaking to RFE/RL yesterday, Cox -- who is also a prominent Irish politician -- acknowledged that Ireland, which rejected the treaty last year in a referendum, may do so again. Cox also says the parliament wants to oversee important aspects of the enlargement process this year. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.
Brussels, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Nice Treaty -- widely criticized within the European Union as not going far enough in modernizing the bloc -- remains a potential stumbling block for EU enlargement.
Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL on 11 April, Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament and also a prominent Irish politician, said the Treaty's full ratification was as important as accession talks themselves. He said this had already been agreed by the 15 EU member states at their Helsinki summit in December 1999.
"The agreement said that the door to enlargement had two locks on the door and two keys to open the locks. One lock was that the candidate states must unlock the door by adopting the acquis communautaire -- the body of European Union law -- and [be] able to implement it. That is the difficult part; that is the negotiations, and that is what we now do. The second part -- the second lock on the door which should be unlocked by the key -- was the Nice Treaty. So politically it has been understood since Helsinki that approving, ratifying, agreeing to the Nice Treaty was indispensable, politically, to the enlargement," Cox said.
Hailing from Ireland, Cox is in a unique position to be able to appreciate the difficulties the treaty poses for both the EU and Ireland.
In June last year, voters in Ireland rejected the treaty in a referendum. According to opinion polls, relatively few were rejecting the core parts of the treaty necessary to prepare the EU's institutions for enlargement. For most, the real problem was the few provisions paving the way for the EU's own defense force -- seen as jeopardizing Ireland's fierce tradition of neutrality.
Cox is now a prominent "yes" campaigner for a second referendum expected later this year. He hopes that the minds of Irish voters will be swayed by a declaration expected from the EU's Seville summit in June confirming Ireland's neutrality.
Meanwhile, EU's Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen continues to point out that with the result of the second Irish referendum hanging in the balance, the entire enlargement timetable is in doubt.
"I must make it very clear. We need the Treaty of Nice for the conclusion of the [accession] negotiations. That's a must, otherwise a delay would be inevitable. Given the fact that a strong majority of the Irish people is very much in favor of enlargement, it should be possible to make it clear in Ireland that the Treaty of Nice is a precondition for the successful conclusions of the accession negotiations," Verheugen said.
Accession talks must be concluded early next year at the latest for the EU to be able to enlarge in 2004. As a European politician, Cox does not appear to be unduly worried. Moving on to other issues, he gives every indication that business there continues as usual.
Most importantly, the European Parliament -- the only directly elected body in the entire EU -- will try to use enlargement to extend its powers in its long-term rivalry with the member states and the executive-style European Commission.
Cox says the parliament will have an important "assent-giving" role in the process that is often overlooked. "This year in June, before the Seville summit meeting which will close the Spanish [EU] presidency, the European Parliament will have a significant debate on enlargement and [come to] a view at that time. And finally in November, [there will be] our definitive debate on enlargement when we will make an analysis, state by state, of the European Commission's reports on the state of the negotiations," Cox said.
Cox also said this means that should it so decide, the parliament is empowered to reject candidates. "In a formal sense, because we have the right of assent, country by country, we can -- if we so analyze and believe and if we have a majority -- reject anything we wish."
Cox also said the European Parliament will seek to extend its assent-giving role to decisions affecting the financial package being prepared by the European Commission and the current member states for the new accessions.
He said the parliament must have a say on the issue because it has "co-decision rights" on all budgetary matters. In other words, no EU budget can be passed without the approval of the European Parliament.
Cox indicated, however, that the parliament is likely to "broadly support" the commission offer, which proposes long phasing-in periods before new members can benefit from full agricultural or structural aid subsidies. Cox said this is because he believes the commission has made a careful "political judgement" designed to avoid lengthy debates within the EU that could delay enlargement.