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Irish Voters Say Yes to Larger EU

National campaign brings out supporters of expansion after earlier referendum rejected it.

October 21, 2002|William Wallace | Special to The Times

LONDON — Appealing to Irish generosity and unleashing the muscle of machine politics, Ireland's government won a convincing referendum victory Sunday, securing the necessary permission to reach behind the old Iron Curtain and welcome more countries into the European Union.

Just under 63% of those who voted gave an approving "yes" to the constitutional arcana of the Treaty of Nice, named after the French city where the blueprint for EU enlargement from 15 to 25 countries was crafted two years ago. The aspirant members range from relative powerhouse economies Poland and the Czech Republic to tiny Latvia in the Baltics. Mediterranean countries such as Malta and Cyprus would also be allowed to join.

"It's a very important vote for Ireland, for Europe, but mainly for the applicant countries," said Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who was deeply embarrassed when Ireland vetoed the expansion plans in a lightly attended referendum 16 months ago. This approving vote reflected an Irish willingness "to welcome the people of the applicant countries into the union with open hearts," he said.

Ireland is the last EU member to endorse the Nice treaty and the only one whose constitution required a referendum.

Ahern said the campaign was won by pleas to an Irish population that has gained socially and economically from its own EU membership to give less fortunate countries the same chance. Subsidies that flowed to Ireland after it joined 29 years ago are regarded as partly responsible for a long economic boom that lasted until recently.

Having been widely accused of running a cavalier campaign the first time around, Ahern threw his government's resources into winning this one.

The "yes" campaign was supported by virtually the entire Irish establishment, from trade unions to multinational corporations and all main opposition parties, with worried European leaders making guest appearances to warn against derailing their enlargement project.

Ahern also found a way to neutralize the "no" side's best issue before the campaign even began. In the previous vote, rejectionists struck a chord by arguing that Ireland's revered principle of military neutrality was threatened by plans to create an EU rapid-reaction force, which could drag the country into an unwanted mutual defense pact.

But shortly after his government won reelection in May, Ahern convinced his European partners to issue a declaration making it clear the Irish would not be bound by any common defense treaty unless they expressed their willingness to do so in another referendum.

The move defanged the "no" side's sharpest argument against the treaty. And the treaty's opponents, who had never been hostile toward the principle of expansion, found it hard to articulate their concerns about the accord's fine print, including how jurisdiction over issues such as trade, justice and environmental regulation would shift from national governments to the EU.

"Ahern kept appealing to that traditional Irish conceit of being 'generous,' and the 'no' campaign was left with only those grumblers who say no to everything," said Michael Barry, a Dublin software designer.

The number of "no" votes was almost the same as in the first referendum, in June 2001. But the higher turnout -- almost half of the 2.9 million eligible voters made it to the polls -- worked in the "yes" side's favor.

The result was welcomed by governments of the 10 aspirant countries, who had feared their decade-long application process might be extended by a second Irish rejection.

"The Irish people just made about 100 million friends in Central and Eastern Europe," said Peteris Elferts, foreign policy advisor to Latvian Prime Minister Andris Berzins.

Formal invitations to join the EU are expected to be issued in December. The other new members will be Hungary, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia and Lithuania, with Romania and Bulgaria poised for later admission.

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