Later this month, the people of the Irish Republic will be asked to decide the fate of a European Community (EC) reform proposal whose implementation some consider vital to the survival of Western Europe as a world economic power. At issue is a document rather pompously entitled the Single European Act. If approved by Irish voters in a national referendum on May 26, the act would trigger the first substantial reform of the EC's founding charter since the organization was set up 30 years ago.
EC Commission President Jacques Delors, an enthusiastic supporter of reform, has said that the act represents ``a new frontier for Europe.''
Another backer, European Parliament President Sir Henry Plumb, says the act would help lower unemployment in Europe by boosting economic growth by ``at least'' 2 percent a year.
Both men - and many others - argue that greater European unity is essential to the Old World's ability to meet the challenge of competing with the United States and Japan in the technologies of the 21st century.
Signed by all EC member nations last year, the Single European Act seeks to improve the EC's decision-making process, formalize consultations on foreign policy issues, increase cooperation on research and technology and create a genuine European ``common market'' for goods and services by removing all non-tariff barriers to intra-EC trade by the end of 1992.
The document's key provision would require governments to give up their national veto in EC policy-making sessions and accept majority voting in areas concerned with developing a true common market. The act's most ardent supporters say this would ease passage of some legislation that has been blocked for years by countries claiming that their ``vital national interests'' would be jeopardized if the new laws were approved. (Members of the European Parliament say that it would give MEPs more influence, too. See box.)
But some respected sceptics doubt that governments would be any more willing in the post-act era to relinquish their national sovereignty for the good of the EC than they were before.
``It is politically most unlikely,'' concluded a group of distinguished lawyers, economists, and political scientists in a study published here earlier this year, ``that where [an EC member country] can show prejudice to a genuine `vital interest,' the rest will insist on forcing it through a majority vote without continuing the discussion to reach an acceptable compromise.''
Other critics point to the increasing unwillingness in recent months of some large EC member nations, notably West Germany, to support the EC ideal in day-to-day decision-making. John Palmer, a seasoned pundit of EC affairs and Brussels-based reporter for Britain's Guardian newspaper, says that ``the new, tougher, less `Euro-Utopian''' attitude adopted by West German leaders can be attributed to the failure of EC's agriculture policy to satisfy German farmers and to growing unease over the country being the only major net contributor to EC's roughly $40 billion annual budget.
``From now on,'' he wrote in a local magazine, ``the West Germans are going to be much more awkward partners. They will defend their vested interests with the same national doggedness of other countries.''
Irish objections to the Single European Act focus on its foreign-policy provisions. On April 9, the country's Supreme Court upheld the argument of Raymond Crotty, a respected economist and anti-EC campaigner, who insisted that closer EC cooperation on questions covering the ``political and economic aspects of security'' could compromise Ireland's constitutional commitment to neutrality. This ruling forced the issue to be settled in a national referendum.
The act was due to be ratified by all EC countries by the end of last year and brought into force on Jan. 1, 1987. Ratification was relatively straightforward in Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, Portugal, and Spain. But difficulties arose in Britain, Denmark, France, West Germany, Greece, Ireland, and Italy. All those problems were resolved in all countries except Ireland, which today holds the EC hostage pending the outcome of the May 26 referendum.