The European Union heaved a heavy sigh of relief on Sunday after 62.89 percent of Irish voters decided in favor of the Nice Treaty on European enlargement.
It's better 2 B inside the EU, says a majority of the Irish
In the hours prior to the election on Saturday and before the publishing of the final results on Sunday, many an EU member and potential member held their breath, awaiting the outcome of Ireland’s referendum on the Nice Treaty, which establishes the guidelines for enlarging the EU.
The result came late Sunday afternoon. It was a 62.89 percent endorsement for EU plans to expand the Union eastwards beyond the current 15 members and meant relief for European leaders. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was worried that his countrymen would stick him with an embarrassing second rejection after last year’s ‘no’ vote, hailed the result as an "emphatic yes."
"It's a very important vote for Ireland, for Europe, but mainly for the applicant countries," Ahern said. "I think Ireland will be seen in a good light right across eastern and central Europe."
Ireland is the only member in the European Union to ratify the treaty by way of constitutional referendum. All the other members had already approved Nice directly, only Ireland remained as a stumbling block to the enlargement process. Had Ireland rejected the treaty, the EU would have been forced to draw up a new draft for entry requirements, and the 10 current candidate countries would not have been able to enter the Union by 2004.
A rendezvous with history
The President of the European Parliament, Pat Cox, himself an Irishman, said that Europe’s "rendezvous with history" cannot be delayed any further. The Irish vote sends a clear signal that it is time to move forward. "This result demonstrates that the only people in the EU to have been consulted have, after a period of reflection, given the clearest possible signal that Europe’s rendezvous with history cannot be further delayed or postponed," Cox said.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also applauded the vote, saying "I welcome the positive result of the Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty. The people of Ireland were aware of their great responsibility to Europe. This decision opens the way for the enlargement of the European Union."
Amid the euphoria in Brussels and Strasbourg, the European Commission warned of remaining hurdles to the eastward expansion. "We have taken a major step towards enlargement, but it is not over yet. There is still a lot of work to be done, on our part and on the part of the candidate countries," chief Commission spokesman Jonathan Faull told reporters on Sunday.
All sides need to get down to business and work to complete the negotiations by the end of the year, Faull explained. Then the EU will have to secure an accession treaty and get it ratified by all the countries concerned. The process is far from over, "the final whistle has not been blown," the spokesman cautioned.
The most pressing obstacle to enlargement is the need to forge a common position on farm and regional policy. In the course of the next few weeks, EU leaders will have to make quick decisions on reforming the costly Common Agricultural Policy, in order for the negotiations with the 10 candidate countries to be wrapped up by the end of the year.
Then once all the hurdles are passed, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Lithuania, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Malta will enter the EU in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria are expected to join later this decade.