What if they say no again? Implications of the Nice II referendum in Ireland

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What if they say no again? Implications of the Nice II
referendum in Ireland

This autumn, European Union enlargement will at
last enter its endgame, when 10 countries are due to complete
negotiations for membership. Last-minute cliff-hangers on the
budget and agriculture before a deal is clinched are inevitable and
have been long foreseen. And while there is still no deal on
Cyprus, the Helsinki Summit three years ago cleared the way to
admit a divided island if necessary. But the most serious obstacle,
not anticipated in the many years of enlargement preparation, is
the Irish referendum.

Having rejected the Nice treaty in a referendum
in June last year, Irish voters are to be asked – probably in
October – to think again. The treaty, which details the
institutional arrangements for an enlarged EU, has to be ratified
by all 15 EU states to become binding.

Politicians in Ireland and from across the EU
are scrambling to present a united front, insisting that a second
“No” will stall enlargement, creating a political crisis. Upping
the ante, they insist there is no plan B. Nice, they say, is vital
for enlargement.

Bertie Ahern, Ireland’s prime minister, has
appealed to voters not to tell the 10 candidate countries to “go to
hell”. Anders Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, declared on
taking over the EU presidency in July that “a new ‘No’ [would]
jeopardise the whole enlargement process”. The European Commission
has said it has no contingency plan.

Irish voters are not convinced. They are well
disposed towards enlargement but dubious about Nice. A recent
opinion poll showed 60 per cent in favour of enlargement and only
17 per cent against, above the EU average. But on the forthcoming
referendum, opinion looks split evenly between Yes, No and Don’t
know. Treaty supporters are hoping a stronger Yes campaign will
lift voter turnout from its low of a third last summer and reverse
the 54:46 per cent rejection of the first referendum.

Failure to ratify the treaty, agreed in
principle by the EU’s leaders, would be without precedent in the
Union’s history. A political uproar would certainly ensue. But
would this really mean disaster for enlargement? Given the
importance of enlargement, it is surely politically irresponsible,
as well as implausible, for the Danish presidency and the European
Commission to insist that they have no plan B. Their energies
should be focused on ensuring enlargement stays on track
irrespective of the Irish referendum.

In fact, there are two possible plan Bs in the
event of a “No” – the catch being that the first would keep
enlargement on track, while the second would be seriously damaging.
The first option would include those elements of Nice that are
vital to enlargement in candidate countries’ accession treaties,
due for ratification in 2003. Crucial elements would be the number
of votes each country has in the Council of Ministers, the number
of MEPs in the European parliament and the allocation of one
European commissioner to each member state (the large countries
losing their second commissioner).

This relatively simple route was acknowledged by
Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, in what was
seen as a notorious gaffe after the first Irish vote, when he said
Nice was not technically necessary. In subsequent damage limitation
attempts, he argued that Nice was vital for a strong EU after
enlargement. But the launch of the EU’s constitutional convention,
with a new treaty to be agreed at an intergovernmental conference
in 2004, has undermined this argument, highlighting the in-
adequacies of Nice and setting out a new approach to designing the
enlarged EU.

Overall, this looks like a plausible plan B:
minimal changes as necessary in the accession treaties, with
fundamental changes scheduled for negotiation in two years’ time.
The real risk in an Irish “No” is that some member states may
instead seize the opportunity to argue for delaying enlargement
until after the convention and IGC have done their work. Allowing
for ratification of the new treaty, enlargement would be postponed
at least until 2007.

The choice of plan B will have to be decided
unanimously by member states. Countries less enthusiastic about
enlargement, such as France, may veto the simple, no-delay plan.
They could quote the current Amsterdam treaty in their favour,
which in an important protocol says the EU should not enlarge above
20 members without “a comprehensive institutional review”. At the
time of that treaty, France, Belgium and Italy issued a declaration
emphasising that institutional reinforcement was an “indispensable
condition” for the first accessions.

Whether these countries would exploit the crisis
following an Irish “No” to derail enlargement is an open question.
They would certainly face opposition from Germany, Britain and
Denmark among others. And any such debate may encourage unsavoury
bedfellows – the extreme right would only too clearly see political
opportunities in encouraging opposition to enlargement. Moreover,
the EU’s failure to achieve its political goals in its own region
would further undermine its attempts to play a global role.

A delay until 2007 would also be a political
upset for the candidates. Many, such as Poland, are already facing
the growth of Eurosceptic political parties as enlargement
negotiations drag on. The impact of delay on domestic politics and
on attitudes to the EU would be substantial, with the European
debate turning increasingly sour. Delay would also mean the
candidates could not play a full part in the 2004 IGC, as well as
being absent from the crucial negotiations over the next EU budget
and Common Agricultural Policy reform.

It is clear why an Irish “Yes” would lead to a
collective sigh of relief across Europe. But EU politicians must
remember it is enlargement, not the Nice treaty, that is the
priority. As well as working for a positive Irish result, equal
energy should be put into ensuring that the simple plan B, of no
enlargement delay, is ready for action. The risk at present is that
the efforts to avoid a “No” vote through dire predictions of
political crisis will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A more
honest approach might help to keep enlargement on track, whatever
the Irish decide.

First published in the Financial Times

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