Ireland: Toward Perfect Union

Ireland’s waning love affair with the European Union (EU) faces a stiff test when the electorate votes June 7 on whether to accept the terms of the Nice Treaty. The treaty was the outcome of intense negotiations between the 15 EU member states back in December 2000. Ireland is the only member country holding a referendum on its ratification. [The referendum was defeated by a landslide, though turnout was low. —WPR]

The treaty sets the stage for the entry of 12 countries into the EU, most of them from Eastern Europe. But it is two other aspects of the treaty that are most controversial in Ireland: the modification of decision-making at the European parliament and a new security agreement.

Under the current system, all EU decisions must have the support of all members. The treaty, by introducing qualified majority voting, eliminates the need for unanimity on most issues other than taxation. It also declares the EU’s speedy militarization to be a Union objective. In negotiating the Nice agreement, the Irish government did not obtain—as Denmark did—a special protocol to preserve its independence in foreign and security policy, which is the basis for its military neutrality.

Despite the obvious concerns over sovereignty and Ireland’s neutrality, the coalition government enjoys the support of the two main opposition parties in calling for a “yes” vote in the referendum. Emily O’Reilly, in Dublin’s Sunday Business Post (April 8), observed that opposition Labor Party leader, Ruairi Quinn, had given his support. “We can’t turn our backs on the impoverished East European states striving for membership,” was Quinn’s catchall pitch to the voters. “Forget the concerns about defense and the manner in which the big boys have accrued even more power to themselves. Just think of the huddled masses yearning to embrace the euro, and vote accordingly,” declared the Labor leader.

The government was keen to stress the economic advantage of EU membership, Dublin’s centrist Irish Times reported (April 10). Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said: “A single market of 350 million people, soon to expand to over 500 million when enlargement happens, is of enormous importance to an open trading economy like ours.” He dismissed defense and security concerns as “minor technical details.”
Not so fast, say others. The Green Party’s John Gormley told RTÉ radio (April 10) that “Nice establishes a new EU institution, the political and security committee. It will in effect direct military interventions...including the waging of war.” The political and security committee will take control of the Western European Union, now a NATO subgroup. Concern over Irish neutrality was also voiced by the Socialist Party and Sinn Féin.

Columnist Fergus Finlay, warning against complacency in Cork’s nationalist Irish Examiner (April 17), wrote that the debate should not be written off as “a case of the conspiracy theorists against the establishment backers.” He added: “Nice represented a qualitative change in our relationship with Europe when we agreed that we would not always be fully represented at the key decision-making tables of the Union. That is a fundamental change we have to think long and hard about.”

The debate on the treaty comes after much-publicized recent gaffes involving the EU. Arts Minister Síle de Valera’s complaints that the EU is impinging on the national identity were soon followed by Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney’s remarks that Ireland had more to gain economically from its relationship with Boston than Berlin. More recently, the EU criticized Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy for his “inappropriately expansionary” budget. Failure to ratify the treaty means renegotiating it, a move that will anger other EU members.

An editorial in The Irish Times (May 10) called for a serious debate on the issues, noting that while opponents “are vulnerable to the criticism that these treaty changes are essential to manage an EU of nearly double its existing size,” the government needs “to address the issues raised about security and defense, the future shape of the European Union, and the dangers of an inequitably divided Europe between different tiers of memberships.”