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EU: Ireland A Stone In The Road To Enlargement

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union's entire eastward enlargement process is in danger of being halted, but not because of problems in negotiations with the candidates -- as difficult as they may be. It is because voters in EU member Ireland must approve, in a new referendum, the Nice Treaty. That's the document that clears the way for enlargement, and it must be approved by all EU member states. Irish voters have already said "no" to the treaty once, and a second rejection could bring the enlargement process to a full stop.

Prague, 29 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- European Commission President Romano Prodi is again expressing concern that events in EU member Ireland could derail the bloc's eastward expansion process. In comments over the weekend to the Spanish newspaper "El Pais," Prodi is quoted as saying that Ireland could be the greatest single obstacle to expansion plans.

The present schedule calls for up to eight Central and Eastern European candidate countries to begin joining the bloc in 2004. But that depends, among other things, on each of the EU's current member states approving the Nice Treaty. That is the document agreed to by EU leaders some two years ago under which EU institutions would be reformed to create space for new members.

Ireland -- alone among EU members -- is constitutionally required to hold a referendum on the issue. It already held a referendum last year, in which the Nice Treaty was only one of the questions put to voters. It failed.

The Irish government is committed to holding a new referendum before the end of the year, specifically on Nice. A second rejection would appear certain to bring the expansion process to a halt. The Nice Treaty expires by the end of the year unless it is approved by all members, and there is no clear-cut path forward without the treaty.

Last year's referendum in Ireland was marked by widespread voter apathy. Some commentators even question whether the Irish public is fully aware that its decisions could decide the fate of the EU's enlargement process, which is generally viewed as a move of historic proportions to unify Europe. David Duffy is an analyst at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. He says, "I do not think that there is a widespread recognition of the implications of a 'no' vote for the broader EU among the general [Irish] population. I think the feeling is that Ireland could vote 'no' and that the EU could continue on the path of enlargement."

This time, Duffy says, interest groups such as farmers and trade-related groups are pressing for a 'yes' vote. He says the government is making more strenuous efforts this time to inform the public, although he notes it is constitutionally bound to explain both sides of the argument. It cannot simply advocate passage of the proposal.

But why are the Irish -- who have done so well economically because of EU membership -- cool to the idea of the Nice Treaty? Duffy says, "What we have seen of the various referendums on EU matters is that you have seen a steady decline in the number of people voting 'yes.' It's hard to pinpoint a particular reason why this has come about. But there is, in some cases, the feeling that there's been too much of a swing in policymaking toward the EU [and] a centralization of policymaking in the EU, and in some cases it could be just a feeling that there should be more policymaking at a national level."

A spokesman for the Irish government, Bob Patterson, denies that the government is failing to explain to the public the potentially momentous consequences of its vote. He says the Nice Treaty and its consequences have been the "first and foremost" elements of the government's information campaign.

"It [the government] has made clear on a number of occasions the absolute importance of this, and indeed throughout the entire referendum process [has emphasized] the importance of this treaty for the enlargement process, and that if the treaty is not ratified that it could have the potential to do serious damage to the enlargement process."

The candidate countries are naturally concerned that the years of effort they have spent in negotiating EU membership terms might be wasted. In general, however, diplomats from the candidate countries in Brussels are keeping their good humor, at least in public. At the Hungarian diplomatic mission, counselor Tomas Szucs expresses what seems to be a general optimism: "Everybody is concerned, but we all hope (laughter) that Ireland will ratify it."

There is a certain irony in the fact that Ireland, a small country on the western periphery of Europe, is in a position to potentially decide the future of so many millions of people stretching as far as the border of Ukraine. To some, it raises issues of whether the entire EU should be held hostage by a nation of a few million.

On the other hand, some of the candidate nations -- who have so recently emerged from the shadow of Soviet influence -- are glad to see that apparently minor members of the EU can make their presence felt. Zigimantas Pavilionis, counselor at the Lithuanian Mission to the EU, says this should not be seen as unwarranted meddling: "It may be vice versa. It's quite a democratic thing. That's why we are joining this union, [knowing] that even one member state can influence the whole process."

Patterson, the Irish government spokesman, contends the key to a successful vote in a new referendum is a bigger turnout. In the last referendum, turnout was only one-third of the electorate.