19/10/2002 - D-7
Just as the Commission is putting together the list of candidate countries who are to be invited to finish their negotiations to join the Union at the end of the year, we should not forget that the Nice Treaty, that was designed to prepare for the Union's enlargement, has to be ratified by all of the Union's Member States. Fourteen of them have already done this. Ireland however is the only country where the Constitution ordains a referendum to validate this ratification. The Irish have therefore been invited to vote once more on 19th October, to say whether they are for or against the ratification of the Nice Treaty by their country.
On 7th June 2001, the first referendum was organised. Most of the Irish (53.87%) rejected the Treaty and plunged the European Union into a state of deep embarrassment. Those in favour of the "yes" vote did not think it necessary to campaign at the time. The Treaty's adversaries managed to overcome their differences and were very active in convincing the country's population, who are often quoted as a model and whose membership of the Union comprises its main source of wealth, to vote "no". Those in favour of the "no" vote attracted the pacifists who are attached to Ireland's neutrality, the Greens, Sinn Fein, that based its refusal on the loss of national sovereignty, the extreme leftwing movements and finally the Catholic parties for whom the Union is synonymous to the right to divorce and the freedom to abort - that is still only allowed on a limited scale in Ireland today. The Treaty's adversaries took advantage of an extremely high abstention rate - 34.7% only took part (i.e. 18% of those on the registers) in spite of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern's pleas for the Irish to go and vote thereby fulfilling "a moral and historical duty" in favour of the enlargement of the European Union.
This year Bertie Ahern and the entire political community went into very early action. At the start of September the Prime Minister sent a 14 page booklet to 1.4 million households explaining to them the ins and outs of the text on which they have to give their opinion. The main changes introduced by the Treaty involve the size and running of the European Commission, the extension of the vote to a qualified majority, the weighting of the votes in the Council of Ministers, the number of representatives per State in the European Parliament and strengthened co-operation, whose participation level has been lowered to eight States (the Amsterdam Treaty demanded the majority). Those in favour and against the Treaty are the same as 16 months ago.
The application of the Nice Treaty is seen as a prerequisite for accession by the new States to the Union. A second "no" from the Irish would block the enlargement process. The Treaty's Irish adversaries have put forward several arguments to back up their refusal to ratify the text:
Firstly there is the non-recognition of the previous referendum and the Irish vote.
The defence of the country's military neutrality, to which the Irish, who often think they were sent too frequently "to carry out war on behalf of the British" are very much attached. The text plans for the integration of Irish soldiers into the planned European Rapid Integration Force. However during the European Council in Seville on 21st June the Heads of State and Government officially adopted a declaration that takes note of Ireland's "traditional policy of military neutrality", stipulating that the European Union treaties "do not enforce restrictive reciprocal commitments in the area of defence".
The risk of fiscal harmonisation that would penalise Ireland where company tax is only 20% and that has led to the establishment there of a good number of companies, especially American ones.
The change over for Ireland from being a state benefiting from European Structural Funds to being a net contributor to the Community budget which entails the financing of the new members' accession to the Union.
Finally the fear of losing its right to veto in the Council, ie to see its identity and sovereignty watered down in an enlarged Europe.
Ireland is one of the countries that has widely benefited from European Union aid. Its accession to Europe in 1973 enabled it make a spectacular economic take off putting a stop to two of the island's secular scourges: unemployment and emigration. In spite of this Irish support for Europe has waned over the past thirty years. Although 83% of the population voted in favour of joining the European Economic Community in 1972, 15 years later the Single Act won 70% of the vote, the Maastricht Treaty won 69% in 1992 and six years later the Amsterdam Treaty scraped 62%. But the Irish questions are deeper and more complex than just simple self-centred reactions, and beyond the result of the election itself, they reveal the worries and uncertainties shared by many Europeans.
So, what will the Irish choose on 19th October? The latest opinion polls give it to the "yes" vote with 37% against 25% for the "no's". But two other figures render these surveys quite relative: just one week before the vote 54% of the Irish say that they do not understand the true stakes involved in this election and 35% say they have not decided what to do. Over the next few days the campaign will be more than necessary if the politicians are to convince the electorate of the interest of a stable, united Europe in the face of the new challenges created by enlargement.
Reminder of the referendum results of 7th June 2001:
(In % of votes cast)
Participation rate: 34.7%
Source Embassy of Ireland in Paris