Europe's future is in Ireland's hands

Bulletin article
Daniel Keohane
03 June 2002

This autumn the newly elected Irish government faces the major challenge of holding a referendum on the Nice treaty. The point of that document, agreed in December 2000, is to change the EU's institutions so that it can cope with up to 12 new members. But unless every member-state ratifies the new treaty by the end of this year, the Union probably cannot proceed with its plan to enlarge in 2004. Irish voters rejected the Nice treaty in a referendum in June 2001, and the latest opinion polls suggest that they may do so again: about one-third of the electorate are in favour, one-third against, and one-third undecided.

If the Irish vote No a second time, how might the Union enlarge? One option is for enlargement to proceed with just five countries. The Treaty of Amsterdam negotiated by the current 15 members in 1997 allows the present institutional arrangements to continue until there are 20, but no more, in the Union. But the EU has since taken a political decision to admit as many states as are ready, and the European Commission says that ten countries are likely to be fit to join in 2004. To halve this number would be politically unacceptable and divisive.

 A second option would be to delay enlargement until after the next inter-governmental conference (IGC), due in 2004, at which member-states will again revise the treaties. Ironically, this revision will start during the Irish presidency of the EU in the first half of 2004. Any new treaty signed in 2004 is unlikely to be ratified before 2006, which would then be the earliest possible date for enlargement. There is evidently a risk of one member-state rejecting the treaty, thereby throwing the Union into disarray yet again.

 The third and most likely option is to extract from the Nice treaty the articles on the re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers and the numbers of MEPs and commissioners, and insert these into the applicant states' accession treaty (there will probably be just one treaty for all the applicants). The rest of the Nice treaty would be cast aside. Under the Amsterdam rules it would then be possible for the EU to let in ten new members. The ratification of the accession treaty should not prove too difficult: it is probable that no member-state will hold a referendum. So long as the EU and the applicant states signed an accession treaty by the end of 2002, it would come into force in time for the European elections of June 2004, the target date for enlargement.

 However, this institutional wheeze could not guarantee that enlargement proceeded smoothly. The Nice treaty was signed after a number of political trade-offs, covering voting rules, the extension of qualified majority voting and new procedures which allow groups of member-states to move ahead of the others in some policy areas. Some governments might not want to keep the re-weighting part of the Nice treaty without its other bits. Indeed, a national parliament could hold up ratification for months, or even years, over the loss of perceived 'gains' from Nice. To avoid this problem some officials have suggested inserting the whole Nice treaty into the accession treaty. However, such a legal ruse would make the Irish vote look irrelevant and thus damage the EU's democratic credibility.

The only way to avoid this menu of unappealing options is for the Irish to vote Yes this autumn. Bertie Ahern, the recently re-elected Taoiseach, is well aware that his government will have to work hard to overcome public opposition to the treaty.

The new government's first priority should be to consider why the Irish rejected Nice in the first place. No anti-Nice group argued against EU enlargement during the referendum campaign. Irish voters were far more concerned that the new voting rules would benefit the larger member-states, at the expense of smaller ones like Ireland, and that a core grouping could leave Ireland behind. Others opposed the treaty on the grounds that it could threaten Ireland's neutral status: it contains articles that refer to the EU's role in defence. And some said bizarrely that Nice could undermine Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion.

It is not feasible for the Irish government to renegotiate a treaty which, in any case, it believes to be a good one for Ireland. But clearly it cannot present voters with exactly the same choice as before, or some voters may ask: which part of the word No does the government not understand? Therefore at the EU summit in Seville, in June, the Irish government will obtain a political declaration which states that the treaty does not compromise Irish neutrality. This non-binding declaration should spell out explicitly the nature of Ireland's military commitment to the EU. It should say that Ireland would only join EU peace-support operations that are mandated by the United Nations.

To win the referendum, the Irish government will need to explain how Ireland would gain from the Nice treaty. First, the re-weighting agreed at Nice was a good deal for Ireland. It would have the same votes in the Council of Ministers as Denmark and Finland, which both have more people. In an EU of 27 member-states, Ireland would have less than 1 per cent of the EU's population but 2 per cent of the votes in the Council; the same right to a commissioner as every member-state; and over twice as many MEPs per inhabitant as Germany, France, Italy and the UK.

Second, enlargement will benefit Ireland, so the sooner it happens the better. Many of the new members are likely to become natural allies on issues such as economic reform. The majority of applicants are small states like Ireland, with a similar interest in ensuring the EU is not run by a directorate of bigger states. Furthermore, the export-driven Irish economy can expect to gain from a wider single market.

Third, the Irish government supports the new EU defence policy because it will help United Nations peacekeeping, not because it wishes to scrap neutrality and join NATO through the back door.

The lessons from the government's lacklustre performance in last year's referendum is that it will have to campaign much more vigorously if it wants to win this time. If the Irish voted No a second time just when the EU's accession talks are due to conclude it would be a shattering blow to the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. They have been waiting to join the EU for a dozen years. A second Irish No would mean there is no guarantee they can join the EU in 2004, or even later.

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