EU sifts through wreckage left by Irish vote


LUXEMBOURG, Reuters

The European Union was plunged into confusion on Monday, trying to salvage something from the wreckage left by Ireland’ shock rejection of the EU’s Nice Treaty.

Ireland’s “No” to a treaty designed to pave the way for the bloc’s eastward enlargement echoes the embarrassment caused by tiny Denmark when it threw out the Maastricht Treaty, the blueprint for a single currency, in a 1992 referendum.

Danish voters approved that treaty at a second referendum a year later after winning opt-outs from various policies, including Economic and Monetary Union.

In another slap in the face for Europe’s “elite,” perceived to be overstepping the mark on issues of national sovereignty, Danes also rejected the euro at a referendum last year.

Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson, who had hoped to cap his country’s six-month stint at the EU helm with a successful summit in Gothenburg later this week, admitted the Irish referendum result threatened to delay or block EU expansion.

“This risks if not stopping, at least delaying enlargement,” he said during a debate in the Swedish parliament.

“The entire treaty we agreed on in Nice is aimed at making possible EU enlargement.”

However, EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, insisted enlargement was on track and ruled out any renegotiation of the treaty.

“(The ministers) excluded any reopening of the text signed in Nice,” ministers said in a statement.

“The ratification process will continue on the basis of this text and in accordance with the agreed timetable.”

All member states must ratify the treaty before it can come into force.

Ironically, Denmark is the only country to have so far ratified the Nice Treaty. Ireland is the only country required by its constitution to hold a referendum.

Sweden had made a top priority of speeding up the enlargement process and had hoped to give strong encouragement at Friday’s Gothenburg summit to the dozen applicants, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, queuing to join the Union.

The Nice Treaty was agreed after tortuous negotiations in December, preparing the bloc’s institutions to admit new members from 2003.

EU ministers pledged to support Ireland, which diplomats said might hold a second referendum after negotiating an opt-out on parts of the treaty it does not like.

Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen gave little early indication of how Dublin might proceed.

“We have to assess and distill the reasons for rejection of the Nice Treaty and to consult with member states. There is no simple solution to this problem,” he told reporters.

Financial markets, and the three big ratings agencies which monitor the impact of the enlargement talks for investment purposes, shrugged off the Irish referendum result.

Moody’s Investors Services said it had no plans to alter ratings, saying the Irish rebuff was not “of sufficient weight to change any ratings, or even any outlooks on ratings.”

It said the timetable of negotiations with those candidate countries likely to meet EU entry terms soonest could be completed by the end of next year, with entry by late 2004.