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EU Enlargement Hinges on Irish Vote

10 candidate countries are slated to join the European Union starting in 2004. But news from Ireland could put a damper on the celebration, if voters decide to reject the Nice Treaty on enlargement.


An Irish opponent of the Nice Treaty and EU enlargement

Support for joining the European Union has generally been high among candidate states in recent months, especially as the date for entry draws nearer. But things could change if Irish voters decide to reject the Nice Treaty during a referendum on October 19.

The Nice Treaty is the EU’s institutional framework for enlargement. It sets up the administrative guidelines for the entry of the candidate countries and must be approved by all the current member states. Ireland is the only EU member yet to ratify the treaty, and the only nation requiring approval of it by referendum.

If Irish voters decide against the Nice Treaty, the entire process of enlargement will be put on hold for months or even years until Brussels figures out a way to overcome the constitutional delay. Ireland rejected the treaty once already last June. A second "no" would be a "disaster scenario," European Commission President Romano Prodi said last week. "We hope the Irish people realize just how important the referendum is."

Enlargement Commissioner Günther Verheugen said on Wednesday he did not know how enlargement could proceed if Ireland votes "no" next week. Another unnamed EU official told the Irish Times that if Ireland votes down Nice, "the legal situation would be messy, but it’s the whole Pandora’s Box that would be opened that would be the biggest problem."

Surge of support for Nice

However, if opinion polls are to be believed, the chances for an endorsement of the Nice Treaty are fairly good. A survey conducted this week by the Irish marketing group Millward Brown IMS Poll found that support for enlargement had risen to 44 percent in the last month. This is a huge increase compared to a poll conducted in September which showed only 29 percent of the Irish were in favor of the treaty.

The level of opposition to the treaty also went up, but only slightly from 19 to 22 percent. The percentage of those who are still undecided fell significantly from 44 to 27 percent.

Even among the rural farming communities, where opposition to enlargement is traditionally greater because of the fears of a loss of agricultural subsidies, the yes voters outnumbered the nay-sayers, 51 percent to 13. A year ago, the majority of people in these regions voted against the treaty.

When the Irish voted last June, they rejected the treaty with 54 percent to 46 and voter turnout was a low 34 percent. Turnout this year should be higher, considering the amount of attention given to campaigning on both sides.

Campaigning the country

Both the "No-to-Nice" camp and the pro-enlargement camp have invested time and money in persuading people on both sides of the issue to come out and vote. Throughout the country, campaigners are taking to the streets of big cities and small towns, passing out leaflets and hanging posters.

The pro-enlargement campaign has a good deal of political and economic clout behind it. Not only are the country’s biggest political parties united in favor of the treaty, but big business groups and labor unions are also speaking out on the advantages of enlargement.

On the yes-side, the most visible and vocal spokesperson is Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who has been lobbying hard for acceptance of Nice. The state leader has a great deal at stake: a negative vote would mean a serious blow to his government’s prestige abroad, whereas a positive vote would ensure that Ireland remains an active player in the enlargement process.

The British Independent quoted Ahern as saying Ireland needs to pass the treaty because it "plays a constructive part in the enlargement process, a process that will reunite a continent divided for more than half a century."

The No-to-Nice camp is far less organized. It has no big names and businesses contributing money and time to campaigning. It is a loosely affiliated group of people from a broad political spectrum, from the Greens to Sinn Fein, who have come together to oppose what they see as a treaty that will infringe on Ireland’s independence, threaten the country’s military neutrality and dampen its influence abroad.

The opponents accuse the Nice advocates of buying the referendum by spending more than one million euro on advertising. John Gormley, a leader of the anti-treaty Green Party and a member of parliament, told the Independent that the outcome next week is "entirely predictable, all you have to do is look at the media coverage."

Last year, the reverse was true. The no-campaign plastered the country with posters and political leaflets describing the disadvantages of Nice, while the yes-side did virtually nothing. This time, the Nice supporters have made sure their simple message is heard: the EU is good for a country economically and politically.

Post October 19

If the Irish pass the referendum to ratify the Nice Treaty, the EU can proceed with the enlargement process to bring eight Eastern European countries, Malta and Cyprus into the fold in 2004. The Nice Treaty is a political requirement for enlargement, Commission President Prodi says, if it is not fulfilled because Ireland votes against ratification, there is no moving forward.

But according to the Irish Times, which cites officials in Brussels, if the Irish people reject the treaty, the EU could nonetheless ask the Irish government to pass a "Dáil or parliamentary declaration backing enlargement." Although such a declaration would not remove all obstacles to enlargement brought about by a second rejection of Nice, it would enable the EU to continue admitting the candidate countries without having to face complaints about "ignoring the democratically expressed will of the Irish people."

One Brussels official was quoted in the Irish paper as saying the idea was "attractive to Ireland’s EU partners because it would give them a green light to proceed with enlargement despite an Irish no vote."

The European Commission and the 15 member states, however, have consistently stated that there is no "Plan B" if Ireland rejects Nice a second time. Although enlargement may be legally possible without the ratified treaty, political obstacles will remain.

The EU Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen said on Wednesday that no matter what happens to the enlargement process after October 19, if Ireland rejects the Nice Treaty for a second time, it will have to explain the meaning of the vote to the EU:

"If a treaty is rejected twice in a country and that country knows exactly that this treaty is a precondition for the conclusion of enlargement negotiations, the outside world cannot make the judgment whether the rejection means enlargement or something else. Therefore what I would like to know is how the Irish feel we could deal with such a situation."

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