Irish ‘no’ to Nice ruins EU mood ahead of key summit


BRUSSELS, Reuters

Ireland’s stunning rejection of the European Union Nice Treaty that opens the door to eastern enlargement threatens to spoil this week’s summit of EU member states and candidate nations in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Last Thursday’ referendum result will also sour preliminary talks of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday meant to boost enlargement negotiations.

EU leaders and diplomats have put a brave face on the Irish vote, pledging enlargement talks will continue regardless and urging Dublin to hold a second referendum later this year.

But they also know the Irish rejection could spark an EU constitutional crisis, give heart to opponents of European enlargement and closer integration and fan euro-sceptic feelings in the 12 candidate countries.

The Irish vote, which echoes Denmark’s 1992 rejection of the Maastricht Treaty that sparked currency crises, also damages EU self-confidence on the eve of its first summit with U.S. President George W. Bush in Gothenburg on Thursday.

“This situation undoubtedly underlines the need for greater efforts from us all to explain Europe to our citizens,” said European Commission President Romano Prodi and Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson in a joint statement on Friday evening.

Sweden holds the rotating EU presidency and will host both the meeting with Bush and the June 15-16 EU summit, where enlargement is expected to feature high on the agenda.

The 15 EU states have until the end of 2002 — by which time they promise to be ready for enlargement — to ratify the Nice Treaty. Only Ireland is required by its constitution to hold a referendum, the others ratifying it by parliamentary vote.

The treaty, agreed last December at a messy summit, aims to streamline the creaking EU institutions to help them cope with a near doubling of the bloc’s membership in the coming years.

Michel Barnier, a European Commissioner who oversaw tortuous negotiations that culminated in the Nice Treaty, said there was no time to lose in tackling the Irish crisis. “The Council of (Foreign) Ministers meet on Monday and this will be an opportunity to discuss with our Irish partners the lessons to be drawn from this result,” he said in a statement.

The crisis is an unwanted distraction for the ministers, who had hoped to focus in Luxembourg on the Middle East and the Balkans, where EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana has been spearheading international peace efforts.

Solana, who visited Macedonia on Saturday and Israel on Sunday, was expected to brief ministers on his missions. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Minister for International Cooperation Nabil Shaath were also due in town.