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Europe

Irish on Course to Approve EU Expansion

Early returns from Saturday’s Irish referendum indicate that the country will support the European Union’s eastward expansion plans by a 2-1 margin.

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It's better to have everyone inside the EU, say pro-expansionists

By mid-day Sunday seven of the 42 constituencies in Ireland had endorsed the Nice Treaty which establishes the EU’s guidelines for the inclusion of 10 candidate countries from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean in 2004. The constituencies, six of which were in Dublin and one in the Country Meath, were reporting an average of 66.57 percent in favor of EU expansion.

No exit polls were taken on Saturday, and the final count is not due to be completed until late Sunday, when the rest of the ballots can be counted by hand.

Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney was nonetheless confident of victory. "I think the vote in Dublin is representative of the country at large," Harney told reporters Saturday night when the first results were announced. "I expect the Nice Treaty ‘yes’ vote will be 60-40 in favor when the votes are counted," she said.

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern told the BBC that he would not breathe a sigh of relief until the official result was announced, but early indications show that his country has not stuck him with the diplomatic embarrassment of a second ‘no’ vote.

EU expansion depends on Ireland

Just over a year ago, Ireland rejected Nice by 54 percent in a referendum that surprised the rest of Europe. Ireland is the only country in the 15-member EU requiring a constitutional referendum in order to ratify the treaty. All the other EU states have already approved the Nice plan.

The 10 candidate states from Poland to Malta and Cyprus to Estonia are all waiting anxiously for the returns from Ireland – their future hinges on the outcome of the referendum. If Ireland votes ‘yes’ on Nice, the countries can proceed on schedule with their entry into the European community and the reaping of benefits such a membership entails.

A ‘no’ vote, however, would result in incalculable delays as the Commission returns to the drawing board to draft a new treaty. The current treaty expires at the end of the year if it is not ratified by all member states.

European Commission President Romano Prodi warned Irish voters that a second negative decision would be a European "tragedy." Danish Prime Minister Anders Rasmussen, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said a rejection of Nice would create an "unprecedented crisis" both politically and economically.

Tough decisions

Supporters of the Nice Treaty, which include all the country’s major political parties, business leaders, trade unions and farm groups, say EU expansion will boost Ireland’s economy as well as increasing cultural diversity across the Union.

The No-to-Nice lobby sees expansion as a threat to Irish jobs, international influence in Brussels and the tightly-held policy of neutrality. The ‘no’ camp is backed by the Irish Socialists, the Greens and the nationalist Sinn Fein.

Maintaining Irish neutrality in global affairs is such a critical issue among the country’s 3.9 million people, that Ahern obtained a declaration from the other EU leaders last June in Seville, Spain, that the island’s neutrality would not be at stake in the event of enlargement.

Many of the nay-sayers also fear that the inclusion of eastern European states would trigger an influx of poor immigrants coming to Ireland to seek jobs. Ireland’s own economy picked up after it joined the EU in 1973, and it is now one of the fastest-growing economies in the Union.

High Turnout

The emotional issues at stake and the active campaigning on both sides have led to a voter turnout close to 40 percent. Although the number is not very high, it is considerably better than last year when just one-third of eligible voters cast their ballot.

Opinion polls taken on the night before voting showed that approximately 19 percent of voters said they were still undecided. These fence-sitters could tip the outcome either way, with an estimated 42 percent expected to say ‘yes’ and 29 percent saying ‘no.’

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