The northwestern periphery of the European Union was slated to take centre-stage last Saturday as Ireland’s 2.9 million voters go to the polls for a second time to ratify the Treaty of Nice, which allows reforms of EU institutions to make way for up to 12 new member states. According to the latest opinion poll (as New Europe went to press), published in last Thursday’s Irish Times newspaper, the Treaty looks set to be accepted as some 42 percent of voters said they intend to vote “yes”. Some 29 percent are against, 19 percent still don’t know and 10 percent do not intend to vote.
The Treaty of Nice puts in place institutional structures to allow enlargement of the European Union and Ireland is the only member state where the Treaty must be ratified by referendum. National parliaments ratified the Treaty in the other 14 member states. A second rejection of the Treaty of Nice could seriously hinder the process of enlarging the EU and Saturday’s vote was closely watched by the 10 countries waiting in the wings to join in 2004 and Bulgaria and Romania, hoping to join in 2007. Ireland sent shockwaves throughout the EU in June 2001 when the usually enthusiastic Europeans rejected the Treaty by 54 percent to 46 percent. Only 34.8 percent of the electorate voted in the first referendum on Nice, and commentators later attributed the rejection of the Treaty to a lack of understanding of the issues among the electorate, a weak campaign on the part of the government to encourage a “yes” vote, a strong “No to Nice” lobby and fears that Ireland’s closely-guarded neutrality would be affected by the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy. Both the government and opposition parties have been running a strong campaign for a “yes” vote after last year’s embarrassing defeat for the pro-European government.
But many in the “yes” lobby fear the electorate will use the referendum to vote against the government to deliver a message on broken election promises. Voters feel they were misled about spending cuts in the run-up to the May 2002 general election in which the coalition of Fianna Fail and Progressive Democrats was re-elected. But even the opposition parties have been rallying behind the government in an effort to secure a “yes” vote in the Treaty of Nice. The Labour Party called on the electorate to “hold your fire”. “Wait in the long grass and deliver your retribution to Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats where it hurts – in 20 months time in European parliament seats and local authority seats,” said the leader of the Irish Labour Party, Ruairi Quinn.
Agriculture is Ireland’s most important industry and while some farmers fear they will lose a share of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget to farmers from applicant states, most see the Treaty of Nice as a separate issue to CAP reforms. In a survey conducted for the Irish Farmers Journal, almost two-thirds of those polled indicated that CAP would not affect their attitude to the referendum. A survey of 400 farmers showed a total of 47 percent intend to vote in favour, 19 percent against and a sizeable 31 percent were still undecided.
Causing most concern is that Ireland, as one of the smaller member states, will be subsumed into a federal Europe and will have less influence in the decision-making process. The issue of military neutrality has caused huge confusion but in June 2002 at a European Council meeting in Seville, the Irish government made a declaration that it would not enter any common EU defence commitment. “Yes” campaigners claim the Seville Declaration safeguards neutrality, while “no” campaigners say the declaration is meaningless and has no legal status.
But regardless of the referendum outcome, Ireland has already agreed to contribute 850 troops to the 60,000-strong EU Rapid Reaction Force, which is expected to be ready for action next year. Now, if Ireland accepts the Nice Treaty, all is well that ends well but if Ireland rejects the Nice Treaty again, enlargement can go ahead with up to five new countries under the terms of the Treaty of Amsterdam – but after that, Europe says it has no “Plan B”. But let us not bring out the Plan B before the corridors of power in Brussels want it out. (692)