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EU: Expansion Again Threatened By Irish Referendum

The future of the European Union's eastward enlargement is at stake again, as Ireland prepares to hold a referendum on the Nice Treaty. The treaty creates the necessary arrangements for the union's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe. Irish voters rejected that document in an earlier referendum last year, and another rejection would likely bring the collapse of the enlargement process. RFE/RL reports on how the Irish are likely to vote this time around.

Prague, 1 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- We live in an increasingly democratic age. So it's perhaps fitting that where once monarchs, statesmen and dictators would draw the lines dividing Europe, today that power is about to pass into the hands of some 3 million ordinary people.

That's because the Republic of Ireland is preparing to vote on approving the European Union's Nice treaty, the basic document which clears the way for the European Union's expansion into Central and Eastern Europe.

Up to 10 countries are set to join the EU a mere 20 months from now. Ireland's rejection of the Nice treaty would shatter the enlargement process as it now exists. If not ratified, the treaty expires at the end of the year, and thus the main foundation for enlargement disappears.

So on referendum day, 19 October, the fate of European unity is in the hands of the folk of Ireland, from the fishermen of Galway to the farmers of Waterford and the industrial workers of Baile Atha Cliath -- as the capital, Dublin, is known in the Irish language.

Bertie Ahern, prime minister of Ireland's center-right government, launched the pro-Nice campaign at the weekend. He has called on the Irish people to have the "generosity" to let the Central and East Europeans join the union, and has said a refusal to endorse the treaty would be a "devastating reversal."

The trouble is, the same electorate already rejected the Nice treaty in a referendum last year. That vote had Nice as one among a number of unrelated questions on the ballot paper, and featured a very low turnout -- just a third of the electorate.

Gerry O'Connell, a spokesman for the ruling Fianna Fail party says the government's "yes" campaign this time is aimed at mobilizing the voters. "The big focus is to increase the turnout, because there is a feeling that a lot of people who did not bother to vote would have been on the 'yes' side."

The government was criticized last year for running a lackluster campaign for the first referendum, compared with a sharply focused and effective "no" campaign by anti-EU groups. Those groups, which will be active again this time, oppose holding a second referendum at all. Their stand on that point is supported by the leader of the Greens Party in the Irish parliament, Trevor Sargent: "We oppose the re-running of [the referendum]. We respect the democratic decision of the people the first time."

Since last year, much has been made of the hypothesis that the Irish people were confused about what the complicated Nice treaty really stood for, and rejected it as a result. Certainly the opposition campaign appealed to this sector of the public with the targeted slogan, "If you don't know, vote no."

But Sargent rejects that attitude, saying it's "highly arrogant to accuse people of not understanding why they voted a certain way." And he goes on to say that one rational ground for rejecting Nice was the fact that it foresaw a military role for the EU which did not allow for Ireland's much-treasured neutrality. And he says Ahern has done nothing to remedy that situation in the intervening time.

"From our point of view, a minimum basic change [to the treaty] would have been a protocol to do with [Ireland's] nonpayment and nonparticipation in European defense efforts -- a similar provision to what the Danes obtained in the [1993] Maastricht treaty."

An independent body charged with putting the pros and cons of the issue impartially before the Irish public is the National Forum on Europe. Forum spokeswoman Caroline Erskine says the forum has spent the last year touring the country on an information campaign. She says it has particularly focused on certain sectors of the community. "We have organized four targeted conferences directed at -- if you like -- groups of people who, research showed, were particularly disengaged, such as industrial- and service-sector workers, women, and young people."

Erskine denied the assertion from some quarters that public understanding of the Nice issue is still minimal. She said a reputable survey issued last weekend indicates the proportion of people who feel they have at least some grasp of the issue has risen from 37 percent last year to 53 percent now.

Still, Ahern will have a hard time securing a positive vote result. A survey shows just 37 percent of the electorate intending to vote yes, 25 percent no, and a significant 32 percent undecided. The survey also indicates that satisfaction with the present government has dropped sharply in recent months. This has led to fears that the "no" vote will increase so as to punish the government for various -- unrelated -- shortcomings. An economic downturn is also spreading pessimism.

The eastern candidate countries are looking anxiously to Ireland. Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski is quoted as saying -- probably only half in jest -- that Irish Guinness beer sales will go down in Poland because it "will taste more bitter to us," if Ireland votes no to enlargement in the referendum.