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EU: Vote On Nice Treaty Shines Spotlight On Democracy?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Ireland, which has a voting population of some 3 million, will hold a referendum soon on whether to adopt the European Union's Nice treaty. If the Irish people say "no," the massive effort to expand the EU to include as many as 12 Central and Eastern European states will likely grind to a halt. That's because each current EU member state is required to approve the treaty before expansion can go forward. Is it a good thing that a relative handful of voters can hold up a process involving tens of millions of people? Is it antidemocratic or reassuring evidence of the rights of small countries in the EU?

Prague, 1 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There is often talk about the need for more democracy and transparency in the European Union, to give the union greater legitimacy. So there is irony in the situation that democratic practice in one small EU member state is threatening to derail the hopes of as many as 12 other countries to become members.

The state in question is Ireland, which alone among the 15 EU members is constitutionally required to hold a referendum to approve the Nice treaty. That's the document that establishes arrangements for fitting the newcomers into the union. Irish voters already held a referendum last year, in which the treaty was only one of the questions put to voters. It failed.

A second rejection in another Irish referendum specifically on Nice planned for this autumn would appear certain to bring the whole EU expansion process to a halt.

This raises intriguing issues about democracy and minority rights. Is Ireland's apparent ability to block the business of the entire EU a positive democratic factor? Or is it a case of excessive power being wielded by a comparative handful of voters over the lives of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans?

Some in the candidate countries, which have only recently emerged from the shadow of Soviet power, see in the Irish case a heartening example of a small member being able to exercise its will within the European Union.

Zigimantas Pavilionis, counselor at the Lithuanian Mission to the EU in Brussels, is naturally concerned that the enlargement process could be delayed or stopped. "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," Pavilionis said.

Professor James Waltson of the American University in Rome ponders the broader issues raised. He said the problem with any discussion of democracy is trying to understand exactly who the constituency is, in other words, who is being affected by the decisions.

In the case of Ireland and the enlargement issue, Waltson sees a major disproportion. "What the Irish voters will decide on will affect people outside the EU, as well as the other many millions inside the EU," Waltson said.

He said it is not particularly democratic when a small number of people in one country can affect the lives of much greater numbers of citizens both inside and outside the EU. But what of the rights of minorities? "One of the principles of democracy is that minorities have a voice, [but] whether they have a controlling voice, or should have a controlling voice, on major issues is a question for which there is no single, straightforward answer. You can end up with dogs being wagged by their tails," Waltson said.

Another analyst, Brussels-based Nicholas Whyte, does not relate the Ireland issue to democratic questions but rather to institutional issues. He said the EU is a "club," and just like any club, it has its own rules. Among other things, present club members are entitled to decide whether they want a new member to join. It is not particularly a question of democracy, Whyte said. It's just what happens in a rule-based organization.

However, Whyte, an honorary fellow of the Institute of Governance at Queen's University in Belfast, expressed understanding for the sensibilities of the smaller candidates. "Most of these [potentially] new member states are small countries, whose experience is being part of a larger system -- a larger, much more undemocratic system -- where they effectively had no serious voice of their own. And I guess it is encouraging for them to see that in the existing EU, small countries can make a difference, even if in this case the difference is not a particularly helpful one," Whyte said.

But that may be about to change.

The ongoing Convention on the Future of Europe, led by former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is meant to produce a constitutional settlement that would be signed by all EU members. This would streamline, and to a certain extent harmonize, the approach of all members, old and new, on questions relating to European integration.

Whyte said this document, among other things, would likely dispense with the need for any further referenda in Ireland on integration issues.

In addition, there is the Nice treaty itself, which substantially reduces the possibilities for using national vetoes. This will therefore cut into the power of individual members, big or small, to press their cases to the limit.

The Nice treaty has already been approved by 14 of the 15 current EU members, and is only awaiting approval by Ireland to go into force. The treaty adds 34 new areas in which qualified-majority voting has to be used -- meaning that the veto right falls away in these areas.

At the same time, the treaty makes it easier for big countries to block qualified-majority decisions. For instance, Germany would need only support from Britain or France -- but not both any longer -- to block a decision.

There remains a total of 71 cases in which a veto can be employed -- still a lengthy list. These are considered areas of vital national interest, such as defense, common foreign and security policy, taxation, and certain aspects of immigration.

The question of democratization is only one of the issues in the present ferment about how the EU should be organized when it is expanded. The Convention on the Future of Europe will have to find its way through a maze of conflicting ideas to produce coherent recommendations on the way forward.