If Ireland’s “No” to the Treaty of Nice is allowed to delay EU enlargement it is because other EU members seek to exploit the situation. If they get away with such behaviour, it will reveal a clear lack of political will among Europe’s leaders to let in new members. Already, disturbing noises are heard from Italy’s new government that the “Irish No” should bring guarantees that EU-support for the poorest regions within its current members should not suffer because even poorer members are to be let into the Union.
Other EU governments should react to this idea with the same firmness used against Spain when it tried to stall enlargement by making similar demands. Now is not the time to create doubts among the applicant countries as to the readiness of the EU’s leaders to put Europe’s future before petty national interests. If doubts begin to grow, the most important political task of our generation – healing Europe’s east/west division after half-a-century of cold war – will begin to disintegrate.
The reaction from other EU members to the “Irish No” must be firm and cool. The Irish have created a problem for themselves. It must not become a problem for the EU and certainly not for the applicant countries. This is why the Irish must receive the same message delivered to the Danes in 1992 when they rejected the Treaty of Maastricht in a referendum: there will be no renegotiation of the treaty. All other member states are going to continue to ratify the treaty as if nothing had happened, and will keep the door open for the country that has created a problem for itself to think again.
In Denmark nine years ago this led to a process in which the Danes defined some opt-outs from the treaty that were acceptable to the rest of the EU. These opt-outs paved the way for a new referendum that resulted in a Yes to what can only be called a “Maastricht-light” version of the treaty that left the Danes on the fringe of some areas of cooperation, including common defence, certain elements of legal cooperation, and the euro.
Denmark’s partners accepted these opt-outs with a shrug. Since then, they have bothered the Danes without delaying greater European integration for others. Here is the crux of a solution: you isolate a problem by allowing a member to isolate itself from certain areas of cooperation so long as this does not bring unfair advantages to the self-isolated country. (In Denmark’s case, the disadvantages are so obvious that even the Danes may recognize this and one day utilize their option to return to the fold).
Only the Irish can decide if a solution similar to the Danish opt-outs can be found for Ireland. Finding such a solution, however, may be more complicated this time because the Treaty of Nice contains technical language concerning voting balances and power sharing within EU institutions. It is also difficult to put your finger on exactly why the Irish voted No.
The No-campaign was a bizarre Irish Stew of pacifism, religion, socialism and some eccentricities only to be found on that beautiful emerald-green island. Moreover, the low electoral turnout may have overshadowed the fact that a majority of voters probably would have voted “Yes” if their leaders had inspired them to go to the polls in the first place.
Now the Irish people and their leaders must define the conditions under which Ireland allows the Treaty of Nice to bring about enlargement without added delay. The alternative will be the same given to the Danes when they had their second referendum on the Maastricht Treaty eight years ago: if it is a “No” again, you will have to find your way out of the EU in order not to become a stumbling block for the larger vision of European integration.
Better than most people, the Irish should understand the importance of the EU in lifting poor and relatively isolated countries into the modern, affluent world. For such assistance is precisely what the Irish got from the EU; and it is what other countries, far poorer than Ireland 25 years ago, are eagerly awaiting today. Many people in Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia, indeed, now must wonder just why Irish voters should want to deny them the same helping hand that transformed Ireland.
While awaiting Ireland’s political leaders to find a path out of this bog of their own creation, other EU leaders ought to consider how voters would have acted in a similar referendum in other EU-countries – that is, if other leaders had been so careless as to let referendums undermine representative democracy. Opinion polls suggest that only in Sweden and Denmark do a majority of voters support EU-enlargement. The gap between Europe’s leaders and its people is yawning. This does not mean that enlargement should be dropped, but that more active leadership is needed to strengthen popular acceptance of European integration.
It cannot be true that, in less than a decade, Europeans have forgotten what life in a divided Europe was like. The historic opportunity to heal the wounds of the hot and cold wars that dominated the last century remains. But it can be lost for a long time if Europe’s leaders fail in their test of leadership.