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Irish defeat looms over EU

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern and other EU leaders must figure out how to sell Irish voters on the Nice treaty  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

GOTHENBURG, Sweden (CNN) -- The planned enlargement of the European Union to 28 nations would take its population to around 500 million. At the moment the project has been put into cold storage by just 529,578 of them.

That's how many Irish citizens voted June 10 against ratifying the Treaty of Nice, which sets out EU reforms designed to pave the way for enlargement.

Only a third of Irish voters bothered to cast ballots. But since they voted 54-46 percent against the treaty -- which cannot become law until it is ratified by all 15 EU countries -- the whole process is now in jeopardy.

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EU leaders and Irish authorities are equally embarrassed. Both major Irish parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, had urged the populace to back the treaty. So had the trade unions and the Catholic Church.

But they were defeated by a coalition from left and right extremes, including Sinn Fein, the Greens, pacifist campaigners for Irish neutrality and opponents of abortion, which was not even mentioned in the treaty.

After Denmark rejected the Maastricht treaty in 1992, the Danes were then offered opt-outs from parts of the treaty, and the government persuaded the people to support it in a second referendum.

The difficulty EU authorities and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern face in trying to rescue the situation this time is that nobody knows exactly why the Irish rejected the treaty.

Some believe it was the sheer complexity of the Nice provisions, which covered weighted voting in the Council of Ministers, the number of representatives on the European Commission, and the weakening of national vetoes by opening more issues to qualified majority voting.

Others believe voters were swayed by fears that Ireland's traditional neutrality could be compromised by plans for a rapid reaction force under EU auspices, which the treaty formally endorsed.

Others believe that the European Commission's censuring of the latest Irish budget as too expansionary was a factor.

There was perhaps a clue in the main campaign slogan of the victorious "No to Nice" brigade. They plastered the countryside with signs saying "You will lose power, money and freedom."

Ireland's economy has been transformed since the country joined the EU in 1973, with a net gain of some 25 billion in regional funding.

Ireland is now so prosperous that it will no longer benefit from EU funding to the same extent. But many poorer EU states fear a loss of subsidies as poorer nations in Eastern Europe join the EU and qualify for assistance.

Irish voters may have been nervous of their country becoming a contributor to -- rather than a beneficiary of -- the EU budget.

If it does prove to have been a case of voters saying "Pull up the ladder, Jack, I'm aboard," that will only add to the embarrassment of Irish mainstream politicians. They are well aware that applicant countries in Eastern Europe now need the helping hand they received earlier, helping to turn their economy into a "Celtic tiger."

EU leaders have tried to steer a careful course following the Irish vote. They do not want to be accused of arrogantly ignoring the expressed democratic wish of the Irish people. But at the same time they are trying to convince alarmed applicant countries that the vote will not in any way delay their admission into the EU.

EU foreign ministers have met and ruled out any significant change to the Nice treaty. But they could possibly add a declaration confirming Irish neutrality, which might pacify the pacifists. Whatever they do or don't do in the end, there will be much anguish over the after-dinner mints in Gothenburg as the leaders seek to unravel the Irish conundrum.

• European Union
• Government of Ireland

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