- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

In a recent meeting in Sweden, European leaders insisted on further expanding the European Union, despite the Irish rejection of the Nice Treaty. On June 7, the Irish sent shockwaves across Europe by voting in a referendum against expanding the EU from its current 15 members to a total of 27 nations. The Nice Treaty would entail incorporating into the EU the poorer East European countries that are still struggling to emerge from the shadow of communism. However, despite the confidence of European leaders that the treaty would be ratified by all the current member nations and despite the prodding of the Irish media and political elite, Irish voters demonstrated that the voice of the people cannot be taken for granted.
The vote highlights an increasing distance between European citizens and the complex bureaucracy in Brussels. The Irish rejected further enlargement because they feared that their national concerns would be overlooked. Ireland, which was formerly one of the poorest countries within the EU, has benefitted from subsidies and currently enjoys greater affluence. The Irish are therefore reluctant to alter their status as recipients of aid to donors in order to assist the countries of the former communist bloc. Furthermore, the Irish have expressed their concern that their neutral status will be affected by the EU's plans to create a joint military force. Finally, some religious groups fear that the human rights stipulations of the EU will change current Irish law that prohibits abortion. In short, the Irish do not want their national interests and distinct culture to be swamped within a larger political structure.
One would think that European leaders would immediately heed the warning and make adequate adjustments. Instead, their response has been mostly dismissive. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern declared that another referendum will be held after the people have deliberated further. European leaders subsequently declared in Goteberg that enlargement will nonetheless proceed. This reaction to the Irish vote confirms the anxiety of many Europeans that the EU is increasingly unaccountable.
European leaders would be wise to respond to this vote with greater sensitivity for it is a portent of things to come: The ratification of the Nice Treaty by all the member states will likely not proceed as smoothly as was previously imagined. The issue of EU enlargement is becoming a lightning rod for the expression of dissatisfaction with the labyrinthine bureaucracy of Brussels that appears increasingly arrogant and remote.

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