European Affairs

Will Ireland's "No" Stop EU Enlargement?     Print Email

The decision by Irish voters to reject the Treaty of Nice last June has upset the charmed relationship between a small country seen as a model member of the European Union and its 14 fellow EU members. But the slap in the face to European integration de-livered by the Irish referendum has especially shocked EU loyalists at the European Commis-sion's headquarters in Brussels.

How, they asked, could Ireland, which has received such generous treatment from EU funds, helping to transform the small island into the famed Celtic Tiger, have bit the hand that fed it?

Central and Eastern European countries, anxious to exchange years of Communist rule for EU membership, could hardly believe that Ireland, which they regarded as a prime example of how to become prosperous, might now block their applications.

The Treaty, agreed at an arduous EU summit meeting in Nice last December, had been presented to Irish voters as incorporating the internal reforms required before the EU can enlarge to accommodate another 12 or even more countries, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe.

In Ireland itself there was consternation at Government level, among the political elite and in the economic and agricultural sectors, which had assumed that the electorate would dutifully accept the Nice Treaty in the same way that it had voted Yes in four previous referendums, confirming Ireland's enthusiastic role in the move towards closer European integration.

So what went wrong in Ireland, and can the Irish voters undo their momentous decision? Without Irish approval, the treaty cannot be fully ratified and the whole enlargement process could be at risk.

There were warning signs that this referendum was in trouble. But as the political and economic establishment and even the Catholic bishops had lined up to urge a Yes vote, little credence was given to the idea that this time Irish voters would reject a treaty that their Government had signed along with the 14 others in February.

In most other EU countries, national parliaments can ratify the treaty so as to allow its provisions to take effect. In Ireland, however, a referendum was required because the treaty was seen as altering the Irish constitution by ceding more sovereignty to EU institutions such as the Council of Ministers.

A big factor in previous referendums was the huge increase in the country's prosperity that has been achieved during 28 years of EU membership, in which Irish gross domestic product has grown from 58 percent of the EU average to over 100 percent. Ironically, however, this very prosperity means that one of its most important sources is disappearing.

Ireland is now too rich to qualify for maximum aid from various EU funds, which will soon start showering their largess on the poorer countries of Central and Eastern Europe, if and when they join the EU. Some of the treaty's opponents argued that Poland's 2.2 million farmers would start getting the aid that used to go to their Irish counterparts.

But claims that EU enlargement should be resisted because Ireland would lose out on funding were fairly muted in the campaign. Most of those opposing the Treaty insisted they were not against enlargement, but against the ceding of more sovereignty and independence to the bureaucrats in Brussels.

They were also against the watering down of Irish military neutrality that the country's participation in the proposed EU Rapid Reaction Force would entail. Ireland has always refused to join NATO and was reluctant at first to join the Alliance's Partnership for Peace lest its traditional neutrality be compromised.

The Treaty of Nice is not easy to understand. It had been strongly criticized as §awed at the time of its signature by the Fine Gael and Labour opposition parties, although they later recommended it to a dubious electorate.

Much of the treaty deals with technical adjustments to voting in the Council of Ministers, the EU's prime decision-making body, and increased use of "qualified majority" voting that would diminish the opportunities for Ireland and other member countries to exercise their veto.

Treaty opponents also pointed out that Ireland would eventually lose its right to have a permanent member of the EU Commission which plays a key role in proposing legislation and administering agreed common policies, especially concerning agriculture.

The fact that the larger countries such as Britain, France and Germany would lose one of their two present seats in the Commission was not seen as sufficient compensation for Ireland's loss of its single seat - although that would be only in rotation with other small countries and might not happen until decades hence.

The Government's main appeal to the voters was that they should regard the Treaty as the way for Ireland to help the applicant countries to put their unhappy Communist past behind them and to join in the move towards European integration from which the Irish have benefited so much.

But the opponents, who included the pro-environment Green Party, nationalist supporters of Sinn Fein, and ad hoc groups defending neutrality and a Catholic ethos, argued that enlargement could go ahead without the Treaty needing to be ratified.

There was genuine confusion here. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam provided that the new arrangements for voting in the Council of Ministers and for membership of the Commission would have to be introduced before the EU was enlarged beyond 20 members.

So strictly speaking, five new members could join before these changes were required. Previous enlargements to bring in Greece (1981), Portugal and Spain (1986) and Austria, Finland and Sweden (1995) had not required constitutional changes in Ireland so further enlargements could take place without a referendum as long as a new voting system was not being introduced at the same time.

In addition, treaty opponents claimed that it was introducing other changes that would be detrimental to Irish sovereignty, such as "enhanced cooperation," which would allow a small number of EU members to join together to promote closer cooperation in certain areas. The opponents said this would allow a "two-tier" Europe, with an inner core, dominated by France, Germany, Britain and Italy, running the show.

Thus, the Government's emphasis on enlargement was undermined in the minds of many voters, while the more vocal opponents continued to raise doubts about abstruse clauses in the treaty. The Government also found its hands tied in putting its case across by the so-called "McKenna judgment."

This dated from the time of a previous referendum when the Supreme Court ruled that any public money spent on information would have to be equally divided between the pro- and anti- sides. The EU Commission office in Dublin was also precluded from getting involved in the campaign for this reason.

Ministers and political parties favoring the treaty were lack luster in their campaigning in the run-up to the referendum on June 7. Their posters were far outnumbered by those of the "No To Nice" group, which warned, "You will lose power, money, freedom." People normally well disposed toward Irish involvement in the EU were dismayed by the Government's complacency, and angered by its dismissal of opponents as extremists, funded from the United States and elsewhere.

There were also suspicions that inside the Government itself there were doubts about the advantages to Ireland of further European integration. The deputy Prime Minister, Mary Harney, had once accused the EU of promoting "job-destroying policies." She had also claimed that in economic matters the Irish could feel "closer to Boston than Berlin," referring to the country's huge dependence on U.S. investment, especially in the hi-tech industry.

Charlie McCreevy, the Minister for Finance, had been unrepentantly engaged in the past year in a running battle with the EU Commission and fellow finance ministers over Ireland's §outing of EU budgetary guidelines for expenditure in order to provide large tax cuts. Sile de Valera, minister for culture and a granddaughter of Eamon de Valera, founder of the ruling Fianna Fail party and author of the 1937 Constitution, had also publicly complained that EU directives were having a negative effect on the native culture.

After the result had been announced, another member of the de Valera clan, Eamon O Cuiv, a junior minister of agriculture, revealed that while he had campaigned for the treaty, he had actually voted against it, as was his right as a citizen. Thus was the stage set for the biggest setback to Irish membership of the EU since the country voted 85 percent in favor of joining in 1972.

This time 54 percent of voters said No to further reforms. But with only 35 percent of the electorate participating, this meant that only 17 percent of the Irish population was giving future European integration the thumbs down - a statistic that was seized upon by the treaty's advocates in other countries. Was it possible that just 17 percent of the population in the second smallest country could block further progress approved by the rest of the EU, they asked.

The low turnout almost certainly accounted for the negative result rather than the strength of the opposition groups, which were far from being representative of middle-of-the-road opinion. Participation rates in the four previous European referendums had ranged from 44 percent to 71 percent.

But the opposition vote had risen from 17 percent against joining the then European Community in 1972 to 38 percent against the Amsterdam Treaty in the 1990s. Clearly there was a growing alienation from deepening involvement in European integration.

The failure of 65 percent of Irish adults to come out and vote was almost as big a shock as the treaty's rejection. Richard Sinnott, a political scientist, concluded in The Irish Times that "the crucial factor leading to abstention was the feeling of not understanding the issues."

The biggest factor leading to the No vote, Mr. Sinnott said, was "the growing pro-independence" from the EU sentiment that had risen steadily in opinion polls since 1988. There is evidence that these reservations are more prevalent among "older people and among those with skilled-manual and unskilled-manual occupations." This may "re§ect concerns ranging from traditional Catholic morality to Irish neutrality and Ireland's international role in an era of globalization."

The Government expressed itself "deeply disappointed" at the result. The Taoiseach or Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, and his Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, had the humiliation of attending an EU summit meeting in Göteborg, Sweden, a week later and explaining what went wrong. They also had to suggest how it could be put right.

The Irish ministers received a sympathetic reaction from European colleagues well aware that they would probably have been in the same position if obliged to hold a referendum in their own countries. The Irish ministers joined with their European colleagues in assurances that the enlargement process must proceed as planned. No one at this stage wanted to address the awkward question of what would happen if Ireland should vote No in a second referendum.

The Government insisted that "the vast majority of the Irish people remain strongly committed to the European Union and enlargement" but added that "it is clear that there are genuine anxieties and concerns about the future, including about continuing democratic accountability in each member state, which go well beyond the terms of the treaty itself. We are going to have to re§ect deeply on how those may best be addressed."

Other EU governments were muted in their reactions while privately dismayed at this unwelcome start to the ratification process. The media had fewer inhibitions. In the larger countries, the Irish result was seen as a confirmation of fears that a larger EU of up to 27 members would be ungovernable if small countries continued to have blocking votes on important decisions.

In Germany, the Suddeutsche Zeitung wrote: "Europe is trembling. The Irish have made the continent aware of the power of a small nation. It also opens a door behind which an abyss lurks."

In France, Le Monde said that the Treaty of Nice was "as clear as a bowl of Irish stew." "The Irish warning demands a change of tack. The European project is clear but it has not become a matter for the citizens. It is neither thrilling nor persuasive because its political expression appears ever more confusing and weak," the newspaper wrote.

La Repubblica in Italy wrote: "Poor Europe, to have received a stab in the back from its favorite son. The Irish wound - the referendum on the Nice Treaty - will not be fatal for eastern enlargement but it bleeds, it hurts and it will only heal slowly. The more Europe's ambition grows, the clearer are its limits."

From Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza tried to be hopeful. "The Irish, who have so much in common with us, stand in the way of our common Europe. We believe that they did not really mean it and we hope (the setback) will be temporary. But the Irish referendum was a lesson in democracy for all of Europe. It is a failure of the Irish government, which did not explain what the treaty was all about."

The Irish Government is in a dilemma. The treaty can only be ratified if Ireland approves it in a second referendum. But is it democratic to keep going back to the electorate until it votes the "right" way?

There are precedents. Divorce in Ireland was easily rejected in a referendum in 1986 but approved by a 9,000-vote margin a second time in 1995. Denmark had to hold two referendums before it approved the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. So it seems certain that a second referendum will be held in Ireland.

In the meantime, the Government has set up a Forum on Europe, which will seek out views on enlargement and on the debate about the future of the EU, which is to be concluded before 2004. The main opposition party, Fine Gael, has refused to take part in the Forum criticizing it as a "three-year talking shop," and calling instead for a three-month debate resulting in a report, which could be the basis for a second referendum.

Ireland's EU partners can only observe the situation in Ireland with concern as they press ahead with their own ratification procedures. These countries have made it clear that they are unwilling to re-negotiate the treaty to accommodate Irish difficulties with it.

One possible solution would be for a declaration to be attached to the treaty, which would give assurances on Irish neutrality. But this would not have legal status, and might not satisfy the opponents to the treaty.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.

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