Ireland holds key to Europe's integration, future

Ireland votes tomorrow on a treaty to expand the European Union to the east.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For D.J. Carey, athlete and businessman, Ireland's choice on whether to go along with European expansion is simple. "I want Ireland to be at the center of Europe, not on its margins," he says. "If we're not in with the rest, if we're out on a limb, then we will have little influence."

But, on the eve of an Irish vote on the Nice Treaty, which sets the framework for widening the European Union, Dublin web designer Brian Murray has doubts.

"The European Union is already top-heavy with bureaucracy. Ordinary people don't have enough say, and this treaty will make that even worse, especially for those in the smaller states [like Ireland]."

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The treaty, which Ireland rejected in a referendum last June, paves the way for admitting 12, mostly former Soviet bloc, countries by 2007.All other 15 EU states have ratified it.

Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, which holds the EU presidency, has warned that another Irish rejection will stop expansion dead in its tracks, threatening post-cold war European integration.

The latest opinion survey, published in Dublin's Irish Times Thursday, concludes that a yes vote is likely, although the level of voter turnout will be crucial.

Stephen Collins, political editor of the Sunday Tribune in Dublin, says the pro-Nice government has run a far stronger campaign this time than in June, when it assumed, wrongly, that the treaty would pass. "There was a lot of misinformation about Nice in June that has now been countered by a more cohesive and efficient government campaign. Last time they took the electorate for granted."

Pro-Nice campaigners here say that a no vote would cost Ireland investment and jobs as well as diplomatic and political goodwill.

Dismissing those warnings as "scaremongering," the no side says it is not against the proposed newcomers, but that better safeguards for Ireland's neutrality, and right to veto key decisions, should have been included in the package.

The opponents worry that a deeper agenda is afoot to create a militarized European superstate, along the lines of the US.

The Nice document foresees an EU defense initiative, including a 60,000-strong rapid-reaction force that would be deployed to handle humanitarian, peacekeeping and combat missions in case of a crisis in the region. Ireland would contribute 850 troops to this force, but the Irish government has said it will only approve participation in operations mandated by the United Nations.

Citing Ireland's traditional neutrality, Mr. Murray says the country has a long history of providing troops for UN peacekeeping, but that "this treaty could lead us down the road to involvement in military adventurism."

Because of such concerns, tomorrow's referendum includes an additional provision: It would exclude Ireland from participating, without a further referendum, in any mutual defense pact that considers an attack on one EU member state as an attack on all.

In the run-up to the vote, a corruption scandal threatened to overshadow the EU decision. After a tribunal of inquiry accused a former cabinet minister of taking bribes from housing developers, there was speculation that voters would seize the opportunity to reject the treaty as a way of punishing the pro-Nice government. Opinion polls now suggest, however, that although levels of satisfaction with the government have fallen to new record lows, this will not translate into a vote against Nice.

The Irish Times poll shows some 42 percent intending to vote for the treaty, up five points since the last similar poll published 18 days ago. Twenty-nine percent say they will vote no, 19 percent are undecided, and 10 percent don't plan to vote. "The polls this time round have shown a steady majority for the yes side, instead of a gradual slippage towards no in June," Mr. Collins says.

The treaty would adjust EU mechanisms and reweight voting strengths – which pro-Nice campaigners say are minor, but needed steps to make an enlarged EU more manageable. Opponents say that the measures reduce Irish influence in decision-making.

Treaty critics also warn that it will trigger a flood of eastern European workers to Ireland, but the pro-Nice side points out that similar warnings proved false when Spain, Greece and Portugal joined.

Mr. Carey, of Kilkenny County, sees moral reasons for approving the treaty. "In the early days, when Ireland joined, our farmers did very well out of the EU. Now it's the turn of the developing countries in eastern Europe."

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