I f at first you don’t succeed, try again. That appears to have been the thinking of Irish politicians in their battle to secure public endorsement of the Nice Treaty, which provides the ground rules for expanding the European Union. Last weekend, a second ballot won popular support. Ireland’s change of heart obliges EU member states to come up with the plans that make expansion possible. As always, the key sticking point is money.
EU leaders signed the Nice Treaty, which established a procedure for taking on new members in December 2000, and all the member governments then endorsed the document — except Ireland. The Dublin government was required to put the treaty to a popular vote, and in a referendum on June 7, 2001, the Irish turned down the treaty 54 to 46 percent; worse, turnout was a miserable 35 percent. That was more than an embarrassment to Irish Prime Minister Bernie Ahern. If each country did not endorse the treaty by yearend, the treaty would lapse and EU expansion could not proceed.
Mr. Ahern promptly scheduled another vote, and this time wasted no effort in convincing Irish voters of the benefits of increasing EU membership. His government spent millions of euros in the campaign and missed no opportunity to court the “yes” vote. It worked. Turnout in the second referendum climbed to 49.47 percent.
The Irish have plenty of reasons to approve the treaty. Some 32 billion euros (net) have been transferred to Ireland over the last three decades in various subsidies. When the country joined the European Economic Community (as the EU was known in 1973), Irish per capita income was about 60 percent of the community average; today it is 120 percent. Those rewards were balanced by the fear that Ireland’s vote would be diluted as the EU expanded from 15 members to 25. Streamlined voting procedures, which entail a move away from unanimity toward majority vote, sparked concern that large countries would dominate decision making. Finally, there was the concern that a yes vote would infringe on Ireland’s policy of military neutrality: The Nice Treaty establishes a legal basis for consultations to dispatch an EU rapid-reaction force to which Ireland has committed 850 soldiers.
The government’s campaign to win over voters prevailed. Ireland voted last weekend to approve the treaty by nearly two to one: 63 percent of voters approved the treaty and 37 percent said no. Now the EU is back on track to admit 10 new members — the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia — by 2004.
That is not a done deal, however. Foreign ministers began discussions on enlargement on Monday in Luxembourg in preparation for a leaders’ summit to be held at the end of the week. If agreement on key issues can be reached at that meeting, final enlargement talks can proceed as scheduled in December. As always, the biggest issue is money.
The Common Agricultural Policy is the EU’s biggest expense, eating up nearly half of the organization’s 95 billion euro budget. Germany, a net contributor to the EU, wants to reform the CAP, especially given the potential cost of extending the same generous provisions to new members from eastern Europe. France, which claims a substantial portion of the CAP payments, argues that it is premature to discuss reform.
Given the divisions between the two governments and the size of the payments, there is little chance that the issue will be resolved at the meetings this week. It is still on the agenda because EU leaders could not resolve the matter at the Nice negotiations in 2000. Most diplomats concede that little progress is likely.
There are other issues. The EU has a dispute with Moscow over Kaliningrad, which will become an isolated enclave inside the EU once Lithuania and Poland join the union. The EU wants Russians to obtain visas to travel to and from Kaliningrad; Russia opposes the plan.
Finally, there is another potential problem that the yes vote does not resolve. Irish voters are not the only EU citizens to have doubts about the wisdom of enlargement. They are, however, the only citizens to have voiced their concerns. There has long been a growing deficit of democracy in Europe as the power of European institutions increases while those same institutions distance themselves from voters. The failure to close the gap will only increase doubts about the wisdom of the European project. That is the message of the first Irish vote. Ireland’s politicians seem to understand; it is not clear whether other European politicians do.
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