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EU: Irish Referendum To Decide The Fate Of Eastern Enlargement

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Voters in the Republic of Ireland on 19 October will effectively decide the fate of the European Union's expansion into Central and East Europe. At a referendum, Ireland's nearly 3 million voters will decide whether to approve the Nice Treaty, the document setting out arrangements for the enlargement process. All other EU states have already ratified the Nice Treaty, but the EU says an Irish rejection would stop plans to admit up to 10 countries to the Union by 2004.

Prague, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There's an Irish anecdote that goes something like this: A motorist arriving at a remote Irish village stops to ask directions from an old man sitting on a stone wall. The graybeard ponders the question awhile, then says: "You know the road which goes past the pub and curves behind the church to the left? No? Well it's easy to see if you just drive to the crest of the hill up there. There's a big oak tree on the corner -- you can't miss it. Well, that's the road you don't want."

Some would say the Irish government has been equally confused in its thinking, to allow a situation to develop that poses an imminent threat to the European Union's plans to admit 10 mainly Eastern countries into the EU in 2004.

At stake is Ireland's approval of the EU's Nice Treaty, at a referendum set for 19 October. That document sets out internal arrangements for the expansion, and the EU says that without it the admission of all the new members is impossible. The other EU members have already ratified the treaty, and only Ireland must hold a referendum, for constitutional reasons.

The trouble is, the Irish people have already rejected the treaty once, at a referendum held last year. At the time, the government was accused of mounting a lackluster campaign which failed to properly explain the advantages of expansion. That allowed a well-run and sharply focused "no" campaign to swing enough voters to reject the treaty.

This time, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and his team seem to have done a better job. A poll published by the Irish Market Research Bureau found support for a "yes" vote at 42 percent, compared to support for a "no" vote at 29 percent. The number of undecided voters stood at 19 percent.

A spokesman for Ahern's ruling Fianna Fail party, Peter MacDonagh, expressed guarded optimism when asked if he thought the referendum will succeed this time: "On balance, yes, but we're taking nothing for granted. The latest polls show that we have succeeded in informing people an awful lot better about what is in the treaty [and] what is involved, and also the virtues of enlargement and the importance of coming out to vote. So at the moment it's looking good, but it will all come down to turnout."

MacDonagh said the government has no contingency plan should the referendum fail. He said a second rejection would be "extremely damaging" and would become an issue at the pan-European level.

Czech President Vaclav Havel appeared on Irish television on 15 October to make an eloquent plea for voters to endorse the treaty. Earlier, Havel issued a joint statement with presidents Ferenc Madl of Hungary, Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland, and Rudolf Schuster of Slovakia. They said rejecting the Nice Treaty would squander an historic opportunity, and that the treaty is a guarantee that the EU will function after enlargement.

But why should the Irish reject enlargement? They are a small nation that has done extremely well during nearly three decades of EU membership. It has gone from being a rural backwater to a thriving high-tech economy, with rising living standards but few of the socially destabilizing effects that rapid growth can bring.

One reason is that many Irish fear the country could lose its traditional military neutrality as the EU develops its defense capabilities. The Nice document foresees the creation of a 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force.

In view of Irish concerns, the EU members have issued a declaration that Ireland cannot be forced to join military endeavors.

But there are also other reasons, which according to the Irish Green Party relate to larger issues of fairness. European Parliament member Patricia McKenna says that while the Greens are opposed to the Nice Treaty, they are not at all opposed to enlargement.

"The strategy [on the EU side] has been to give the impression that the Nice Treaty is [strictly] about enlargement. But it's not, and what it is actually about is changing the way Europe operates, whereby the EU will now be able to divide into different levels of membership."

Explaining, McKenna says that enlargement can go ahead without the Nice Treaty; the key elements related to expansion could be incorporated into each accession treaty, which then have to be approved by each member state's national parliament.

But she says what cannot happen without Nice is what is called "enhanced cooperation." That's a concept under which a group of member countries can forge ahead with increased integration, leaving the others behind.

"That's going to create an inequality in Europe, within the European Union, where you have different sorts of speeds. So the faster and more progressive or more wealthy countries can forge ahead at a faster speed using the EU institutions, which are supposed to be there for all. We think this is going to divide Europe in the future."

However, Deaglan de Breadun, a senior commentator with the "Irish Times" newspaper in Dublin, says the word "divided" can also be applied to describe Irish opponents of the Nice Treaty. Within the "no" camp, he says the leftists, like the Greens, are embarrassed by efforts among right-wing opponents of the treaty to make immigration a campaign issue:

"This time they have been up against a very formidable, well-financed, and assertive 'yes' campaign; the 'no' campaign has been divided on the issue of immigration."

But as de Breadun says, one cannot be sure of the result of the referendum until the last vote is counted.