Irish referendum could jeopardize EU enlargement

Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda (left) and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen, photo: CTK

While ten countries, including the Czech Republic, are hoping to join the European Union at the beginning of 2004, a referendum in Ireland, planned for this weekend, could potentially derail or delay the enlargement process. Although few are willing to admit it, the referendum is being watched by the candidate countries with certain uneasiness. Vladimir Tax reports.

Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda  (left) and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen,  photo: CTK
Saturdays referendum in Ireland will determine whether the Nice Treaty - which reforms the EU to admit up to 12 new members, mostly from Eastern Europe - lives or dies. Ireland is the only EU country obliged by its constitution to hold a national ballot on the issue, and the only member which still has to ratify the treaty.

Opponents, who range from pacifists and socialists to hard-line republicans, have already defeated the treaty once in a referendum in June 2001 and are confident they can do it again. Their main arguments are economic, political and military. Stefan Auer is a political scientist at the Dublin European Institute at University College Dublin:

They mainly argue that that the influence of Ireland would be significantly decreased, that the Treaty of Nice pushes the European Union towards a European superstate, and that an aspect of the superstate is militarization of the European Union. I think that most of these arguments are bogus arguments, not founded in proper reading of the Treaty of Nice.

The outcome of the referendum will determine whether EU enlargement goes ahead according to plan. Some politicians have been trying to play down the importance of the referendum, saying if it causes a delay, it will be only insignificant. And some are refusing to even countenance another No vote, like Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda who visited Ireland at the end of last week.

There is no plan B. Our common interest is that the Treaty of Nice is ratified. We are not preparing for any other option, we are not thinking what would happen if the Irish voters said NO in the referendum.

Both opponents and proponents of the Nice Treaty in Ireland say they are in favour of enlargement. However, as political scientist Stefan Auer points out, the delay that the rejection of the Nice Treaty could cause is far from insignificant, and seeking a way to bypass the Irish vote could undermine the EUs credibility:

I think that there is a very serious risk that accession will be delayed by years rather than months. One needs to imagine that it takes probably two years to negotiate this kind of treaty and fifteen member states have to agree on some kind of compromise. If the whole process has to start again, I think it will be very, very difficult. On the other hand, if a simple solution is found, then the credibility of the European Union as a democratic polity would be further undermined because it would then basically ignore the result of the Irish referendum, which I would find quite problematic.