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EU: After Irish Vote, Foreign Ministers Rule Out Renegotiating Nice Treaty

European Union foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg on 11-12 June, failed to provide a clear perspective for the enlargement process following Irish voters' rejection of the Nice Treaty a week ago. Several member-state and candidate foreign ministers privately described the reaction to the vote as one of "shock." EU ministers ended their meeting without saying how they planned to reverse the result of the Irish referendum, or what would happen if that proved impossible.

Luxembourg, 13, June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The rejection of the Nice Treaty by Irish voters in a referendum last Thursday (June 7) has left the European Union facing a conundrum.

The Nice Treaty was adopted six months ago to prepare EU institutions for the accession of up to 12 new countries. And during their meetings in Luxembourg Monday and yesterday (Tuesday), the Union's foreign ministers agreed that enlargement could not proceed without the treaty's ratification.

In private, several (unnamed) member-state and candidate foreign ministers described the EU's reaction to the vote as one of "shock."

But Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh -- speaking on behalf of the current EU presidency -- said Monday that the Irish referendum would neither slow down enlargement nor bring any changes to its agreed outlines. In other words, she suggested, all 12 candidates will continue accession talks and -- according to a European Commission "roadmap," endorsed by EU member countries -- frontrunners could end negotiations by the end of the next year.

The conundrum would be resolved by a second, successful referendum in Ireland. This appears inevitable, as Ireland's Constitution requires a popular vote to ratify any EU treaty.

Yet no EU official has yet explained how the minds of the Irish voters could be changed. The most obvious way -- renegotiating the Nice Treaty to ease Irish fears of a loss of sovereignty and the country's traditional neutrality -- was explicitly ruled out on Monday by EU foreign ministers.

Many of the ministers said they hoped enlargement would be a powerful argument in any second Irish referendum. In fact, most of the "No" campaigners in Ireland had expressed support for enlargement.

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Guenter Verheugen, cautioned, however, that enlargement in itself was not an "easy sell."

"After the Irish referendum, everybody in Europe is aware that we have to convince people, that we have to fight for it, that we have to campaign. It is well-known, and it has been my position since the beginning, that enlargement is not -- let me say -- a 'self-seller.' We must explain it."

There is little time left for explanations, however. The present enlargement timetable requires the ratification of the Nice Treaty by the end of 2002.

With no guarantees that a second referendum in Ireland will not produce another humiliating defeat, contingency plans will have to be made by the EU. So far, none have been offered, and few officials appear willing to speak about such a possibility in public.

Sweden's prime minister, Goeran Persson, admitted yesterday that "there's a risk that it [the enlargement process] could be delayed or hampered."

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan -- in Luxembourg with his candidate colleagues on Monday and Tuesday -- agreed.

"The removal of [the] Nice [referendum problem in Ireland is] a precondition for a smooth way for enlargement. Otherwise, you'll be left with a very clumsy way of going round the provisions [of the Nice Treaty.] Saying that maybe a small number of countries could join the Union in the spirit of Amsterdam is going to be extremely difficult."

Kavan was referring to the EU's 1997 Amsterdam Treaty, which remains in force until the Nice Treaty is ratified and would inevitably form the backbone of any contingency solution -- barring the unlikely negotiation of an alternative to the document agreed upon in Nice.

A protocol appended to the Amsterdam Treaty contains the first-ever EU guidelines about eastward enlargement. It says that to accept more than five new members, the EU must "comprehensively review" its institutions. The protocol also says that to admit even as few as five new members, old and new EU members must first reach agreement on the division of powers in post-enlargement institutions.

EU officials say limited enlargement on the basis of the Amsterdam Treaty would be technically possible, but politically unfeasible. It would mean reversing the decision taken at the 1999 Helsinki summit to extend the circle of candidates to 12. It would also mean that if more than five countries are ready to accede in late 2002, a potentially controversial choice would have to be made among them.

A failure to ratify the Nice Treaty would also constitute a severe blow for overall EU morale, reversing steps toward greater political, economic, and defense integration agreed upon in December.

Second-wave candidates -- most likely to be affected by any reversal of post-Amsterdam decisions -- put on a brave face in Luxembourg. When prompted, most concurred with Latvia's foreign minister Indulis Berzhins, who suggested a second referendum in Ireland would remedy matters.

"It could be really a very artificial and, to some extent, even a crazy situation if -- for example -- six countries could not be accepted just because five countries have the opportunity to enter the European Union. I don't think so. I think that Irish people will support enlargement because that referendum was about everything but enlargement."

To keep the Nice Treaty alive, Irish voters will have change their minds. To bring this about, the EU will have to work hard to make good the promise made in a joint declaration on Monday to "contribute in every possible way to help the Irish government to find a way forward."