15 June 2001

Confusion rules Irish vote on Nice Treaty

Irelands rejection of the Nice Treaty is

as surprising as it is inconvenient. But,

as far as EU enlargement is concerned,

that is all it is – an inconvenience, as

Europe editor Philip Clarke explains

SOMETHING quite remarkable has been achieved by the Irish people.

According to last weekends Press reports, they have simultaneously delivered a "stunning blow" to the enlargement process, a "stab in the back" for the EU and a "kick in the teeth" for the Dublin government.

Notwithstanding the medias propensity to exaggerate, there is no denying that the Irish "No" vote to the Nice Treaty was a genuine surprise. It came despite a concerted campaign by the establishment, including the Irish Farmers Association, in favour of the agreement.

The key factor was the question of military neutrality. The commitment to a European rapid reaction force was enough to persuade most nationalists, pacifists, Catholics and Greens to vote no.

But it was not the only issue. Fear was another motivator. Fear of a loss of power within the EU decision making process. Fear that Irish producers may not be able to compete with those in the east. Fear that Brussels handouts, which have done so much to boost Irish agriculture and the economy generally, will be redirected to the likes of Poland and the Czech Republic.

Probably the greatest factor, however, was that the people simply did not understand what they were voting for.

The Nice Treaty is a horrendously complex piece of legislation, hammered out over four long days and nights on the French Riviera late last year. It is intended to revamp the Brussels machine so that it is better able to deal with an EU of up to 27 member states rather than 15.

Specifically, it seeks to redistribute voting power within the council (giving more clout to countries with bigger populations); cut the number of areas where unanimous rather than majority voting is needed (while allowing some national vetoes to continue); and limit the size of the commission as the EU expands (but only when it gets to 27 members).

Faced with this confusing compromise, most Irish citizens stayed at home, while, of the 34% who did vote, over half said no thanks.

Initial reaction suggested this failure to ratify the treaty would derail the enlargement process. "Nice is dead" shouted the headlines. But that seriously underestimates the political determination of EU leaders to tie in the former Communist countries of the east.

Foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg this week made it clear the enlargement juggernaut would roll on. There would be no renegotiation of the Nice Treaty. Ireland would have to find its own solution, by the end of 2002 at the latest. That will mean a second referendum, much as the Danes did when they rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

The authorities hope that enough of the potential yes voters, who stayed at home this time, will emerge to endorse the treaty.

Inevitably there will have to be some "bolt-ons", as it would be inconceivable to ask the Irish to vote again on exactly the same package. This is likely to include a protocol exempting them from the rapid reaction force.

But the fundamentals of the treaty will remain. Enlargement will take place – probably starting in 2004 – with all that that implies for west European agriculture.

Having said that, the Irish no vote should be welcomed, even if it achieves no more than to send a warning to Brussels that it cannot always ignore the wishes of the people.

But the question facing Ireland is what damage has the no vote done to its own international reputation? Certainly it has not made any friends. It is perceived by many – especially in the candidate countries, but also in Brussels – as having creamed off as much as it can in EU agricultural subsidies and structural aid, and is now seeking to deny the same benefits to those in greater need in the east.

Time will tell. What is certain is that the Irish have not dealt a fatal blow to the enlargement process. But they may have shot themselves in the foot. &#42