Nice for the second time – auction completed

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Nice for the second time – auction completed

On Saturday the Irish voted for the second time in the referendum about the Treaty of Nice – and they have approved it. However we as a candidate country can feel comfortable about this, the truth is that this has been a Pyrrhos´s victory. The polls have indicated until the very last moment an indecisive outcome, especially due to a high proportion of undecided voters. Even though eventually 63% of those who came to the polling stations voted in favour (with a considerably high turnout of around 50%), one has to think about wider consequences of this voting, especially in terms of similar situations that might occur in the future.

Why again on the same matter?

The fact that the Treaty was presented to the Irish voters for the second time in an unchanged version can in itself raise some doubts. Already an old Roman rule says : ne bis in idem – it is not possible to rule twice on the same matter. Why should the Irish say yes to something that was already once refused?

The answer is – the circumstances under which the referendum was held last Saturday were not the same as those of last June. At that time, it was by far not clear how the accession talks would proceed, and if at all the enlargement would be feasible in a foreseen time framework. For this reason, it was the questions other than enlargement that were at a stake. The situation was different this year. The European Commission has published its regular reports formally acknowledging that ten countries will be ready to conclude the negotiations by the end of this year. This has to be further confirmed by the European Council due to meet in Brussels at the end of October. Without the respective institutional framework set forth by this very Treaty, the invitation of ten newcomers would not be possible. An alternative would be adopting the “B plan”. This according to the EU Enlargement Commissioner Verheugen did not exist, nevertheless speculations around it appeared. It would suggest the inclusion of those parts of the Nice treaty dealing with institutional issues into the Accession Treaties with the candidates. One could argue that this would be the way to circumvent the voice of Irish people as they will not ratify the accession treaties in a referendum. Apart from that, some member states might not want to sign up to this and use this as a pretext for opening up the institutional clauses before the enlargement takes place. In any case, this would lead to a delay of the enlargement process by months, or even by years.

Thus the Irish more than in 2001 were deciding whether the enlargement would happen in the envisaged temporal framework.

Even the other issues dealt by the Treaty of Nice were not the same. One of the controversial issues raised in the last year´s campaign was the participation of Irish troops in the peacekeeping missions of the EU, as well as in the rapid reaction force. There was a shift even in this domain – at the European Council in Seville in June last year, the fifteen member states have adopted a joint declaration explicitly conferring to the Irish the right to decide whether they will participate in missions under the CFSP. Furthermore, the Irish government of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has promised that this question will be a subject of yet another referendum. Even this fact has contributed a great deal to conciliating the part of Irish population that might have some concerns about the traditional Irish neutrality.

Weaker Ireland in Europe and workers from the East

The campaign of the opponents of the Nice treaty thus focused on the issues that were not influenced by the changes of the previous year. They argued that the influence of Ireland in the EU would be weakened, not only compared to big states but as a result of an overall dillussion of decision-making in the enl arged Union. Ireland will lose an automatic right to appoint a Commissioner, and its vote in the Council as well as the number of MEPs will not give it a sufficient strength to defend its positions. From the political forces, it was especially two smaller parties – Sinn Féin and the Greens who argued this way.

These arguments can be faced very easily, and those in favour of the Treaty have done a far better job in this respect than a year ago. It is true that Ireland would lose an automatic right to a Commissioner. In the same way, however, the big countries would lose the right to a second member of the College. Moreover, this change will not happen before 2005 when a new system agreed on the forthcoming IGC can be in force. As far as votes in the Council are concerned, Ireland will have the same number as bigger Finland or Denmark. The number of MEPs elected per capita would be in Ireland about twice that of UK, France or Italy.

Other arguments against Nice were stressing more than the last year the possible negative consequences of the enlargement. The Irish were threatened by the masses of immigrants from poorer Eastern countries flooding the Emerald Island and competing with their cheap labour force. Ireland is furthermore a country whose government does not want to impose restrictions towards the citizens of new member states at its labour market.

Even these arguments in general came in vain. The surveys suggest that the Irish – unlike the British or the French – do not fear the accession of new countries. The long-term support for enlargement in Ireland reaches around 60%, far above the EU average while the opponents have mere 17%. Majority of the Irish is well aware then in 1973 upon the accession to then the ECC they were in a similar position and they do not want to deprive the citizens of the candidate countries of using the EU membership for their own development. Irish economy already now suffers from a shortage of qualified labour force, especially in the IT sector. The openess of Irish economy and its pro-export orientation furthermore signalise that Ireland could benefit considerably from the enlargement of European market.

It is evident that this year the campaign for the “yes” vote was far more intensive than a year ago. The Irish government succeeded in tackling those problems that could deter the undecided voters from a positive vote, especially in the field of European Security and Defence Policy. The engagement of these forces contributed a great deal to the positive outcome of the referendum.

Lessons from the crisis

The approval of the Treaty in the second referendum gives the opportunity of relief both to governments of the candidate countries who can go on closing the final chapters as well as to the EU actors, especially the Commission and the Danish government, who have appealed mostly to the Irish to take a positive vote. Yet, it is necessary to deliberate on what the Irish lesson means for the potentially important developments at the European political scene.

The first consideration is directed to the previous Irish government. It was too sure by the traditional Irish loyalty to the EU and has underestimated the information campaign explaining to the voters importance as well as possible obstacles of the Nice Treaty. The result of this could have been a very low turnout of only 35% in the last June´s voting. But first of all, the Irish representatives should have been aware of the potential risks already while negotiating the treaty.

It is necessary to mention yet another problem and that is the popular voting on extremely complex, sometimes very controversial issues. It is of course impossible to prescribe to Ireland what should be subject to a referendum and what not – it is entirely a question of its constitutional system. The fact is that a broader trend can be traced in Europe concerning referenda on similar issues. In the l ast decade, the Treaty of European Union was rejected in Denmark for the first time and in France the approval was very tight. There is no wonder about that – it is difficult to raise a hand for a document that contains so many clauses some of which the voters are probably going to like and others to dislike. The direct democracy is suitable in giving definite answers to simple questions. This was, however, not the case of Nice.

Another point to raise concerns the EU institutions, for several reasons. The Nice Treaty was from the very beginning presented as a conditio sine qua non of the enlargement, preparing the EU to function in a number greater than twenty. At the European level, however, it was never clearly articulated that this is a merely provisional solution that is not likely to survive year 2006. The Laeken Declaration from December 2001 has called for the Convention on the Future of Europe which is currently working on a far more complex reform of the Union after the enlargement. Whether it will come to conclusions that the subsequent IGC can use for its deliberations is impossible to say right now. Still, an intensive debate in working groups as well as in the plenary is taking place and first results start to appear. This discussion did not precede at all the IGC concluded at Nice and its inconsistency is likely to have contributed to the failure of the first Irish referendum.

Also the way of treating Ireland from the other EU players is disputable. One can pose a legitimate question why Ireland was not approached the same way as Denmark in 1992 when the Danes refused to ratify Maastricht. Why were the negotiations not reopen over the questions that were of a particular concern to the Irish? Possible changes could have been negotiated and approved softly by the other members. The urgency for enlargement and the fact that treaty was already ratified by some members would argue against such a step. However, in the same way the whole ratification procedure could have come in vain if the Irish said “no” for the second time as the obligations would have expired by the end of 2002 if not ratified by all the members. Relying on the fact that the Irish government will eventually convince its voters who have already once refused the Treaty is a political hazard which should not be repeated.

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