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EU: Ireland Holds Key Vote On Nice Treaty

Voters in the Republic of Ireland go to the polls in a referendum tomorrow (Thursday) on whether to accept the European Union's Nice Treaty, the controversial document agreed upon by EU leaders six months ago that is designed to open the way for eastward enlargement of the Union. Ireland is the only one of the 15 EU member states which is holding a referendum on Nice, and even supporters of the treaty say the vote could be close.

Prague, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ireland has always been one of the most loyal states of the European Union. A member for almost 30 years, it has long been a beneficiary of massive development aid from Brussels. With the help of those funds, plus strong foreign investment, the Irish have worked to develop what is now the most vibrant economy in the Union, based on modern, high-tech industries.

But today, to an unprecedented extent, there is vocal opposition in Ireland to the next step in EU integration -- the Nice Treaty. Adopted by EU leaders at a summit six months ago, it is designed to reform Union institutions ahead of the arrival of new members from Central and Eastern Europe. But critics in Ireland say the treaty contains serious distortions of some of the EU's basic concepts, notably equality among members large and small.

Such is the opposition that there is even a possibility that Irish voters might reject the treaty in tomorrow's (Thursday's) referendum. The Irish Republic is the only one of the 15 EU member-states that is putting adoption of the Nice Treaty directly to the voters. For the other EU members, the treaty will be ratified by parliaments. All 15 must ratify the treaty before it can take effect.

The Irish opposition has run a skillful campaign, using slogans like "If you don't know, say no." A commentator with Dublin's leading "Irish Times" newspaper, Deaglan de Breadun, says the slogan appeals to many ordinary people who are confused by the complexity of the Nice Treaty and feel some apprehension about a loss of Irish sovereignty or an erosion of the country's long-standing policy of military neutrality.

But the opposition also has more concrete arguments. Academic Anthony Coughlan, who heads an anti-treaty group called the National Platform, objects to the idea of "enhanced cooperation," which was approved at Nice. Under that concept, a group or groups of countries can choose to join together to deepen their integration, even if the other countries do not want to move at the same pace. Coughlan sees in this a ploy by the established larger states -- like France and Germany -- to retain control of the Union once it is vastly expanded. He tells our correspondent:

"What Nice entails is really a political decision by the big states, [namely] that in order to take account of the very big enlargement, they want to make sure they are running the show, by setting up this kind of inner group. And from our point of view we think that is a very unfortunate development. The East European states are trying to join a club, some of whose members are setting up a club inside the first club."

Coughlan says this breaches the principle of unanimity which has previously prevailed on important issues in the EU. He continues: "The enhanced cooperation provisions of the Nice Treaty allow the EU to be divided into two parts. It allows an inner group of [for instance] eight states to do their own thing, to set up a quasi-government -- or whatever -- with a constitution, harmonized tax and all the rest, even if the others disagree. In other words the principle of unanimity, which hitherto has prevailed in any such development, is abolished."

The Irish Greens party also opposes ratification of the Nice treaty on the grounds that it creates what it calls "first- and second-class citizens" through enhanced and exclusive cooperation. Green member of the European Parliament Patricia McKenna says the Greens also worry about what they see as the increased "militarization" of Europe. She tells RFE/RL:

"Nice brings us a step further along that [military] road. Already the rapid-reaction force has been set up within the EU. It's a rapid-reaction force which can take military action without a UN mandate, which is also very disturbing, and for Ireland as a so-called neutral or non-aligned country, this is very worrying."

Both Coughlan and the Greens say they are not trying to hamper the eastward enlargement of the EU with their "No" campaigns. Even if Nice were to be rejected, they point out, the Union's older accord, the (1997) Amsterdam Treaty, allows for up to five new members to be taken in without delay.

A senior official in the Irish Foreign Ministry -- who spoke on condition of anonymity -- dismissed the possibility that the oppositionists might win. The official told RFE/RL that every major social and political grouping in the country favors adoption of the Nice Treaty, and that the opposition, though vocal, is small in number.

But "Irish Times" commentator de Breadun says that the Dublin government's campaign for a "Yes" vote has not been very convincing. "I have to tell you that the 'Yes' campaign has not been terribly effective, either. There has been a lack of passion on the 'Yes' side, almost a perfunctory approach, which is not helpful [to that cause]." De Breadun notes, however, the long-established links between Ireland and the EU, and the high level of support that the EU has enjoyed in Ireland in past years:

"The last 10 years have been very good [in economic terms] and part of that has been attributed to assistance from Europe. There is a lot of gratitude around on that score, and I think that at the end of the day a lot of people will say Europe has been good for us, and it's now pay-back time."

But with an Irishman's traditional habit of seeing things in betting terms, de Breadun says he is "not putting any money on it."