- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 20, 2002

DUBLIN The first official returns showed supporters of EU expansion leading in Ireland's crucial referendum yesterday.
Voters in six Dublin districts gave a resounding endorsement to the Euopean Union's plan to extend membership to the formerly communist states of the east. They represented less than a sixth of Ireland's electorate but provided heartening news to the government, which pushed hard for a "yes" vote.
Final results are expected today.
In one of the six reporting districts, 73 percent of voters backed a bigger European Union, which would extend from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and Russia's border to the Atlantic. In the district with the weakest showing for the pro-expansion camp, 56 percent of the votes backed the EU plan.
Several of the reporting districts voted "no" when Ireland held a similar referendum last year.
Turnout in the six districts appeared to be high, ranging from 44 percent to 55 percent, far above last year's 34 percent. Strong turnout is believed to favor the pro-expansionists.
"This referendum is all over," said Dublin political analyst Noel Whelan, who forecast a resounding victory for the treat.
He noted that the capital's vote had swung 10 percent to 20 percent in favor of the "yes" camp compared with June 2001, when Irish voters shocked their EU neighbors by rejecting the expansion plan.
A second Irish rejection of the plan would put expansion on hold for years.
The expansion blueprint is contained in a treaty negotiated in December 2000 in Nice, France, to fulfill the post-Cold War dream of integrating former communist states into the European fold. The treaty would also reorganize EU institutions to streamline decision-making in an expanded Union of nearly a half billion people.
The treaty must be ratified by all 15 EU member countries. Fourteen have done so by parliamentary vote, but Ireland's constitution requires it to hold a referendum.
Approval of the treaty would pave the way for 10 countries Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Estonia, Malta and Cyprus to join the European Union in 2004. Bulgaria and Romania are expected to enter the European Union three years later.
Irish voters surprised EU leaders when it turned down the treaty in July 2001 54 percent to 46 percent a result widely blamed on low turnout and a lackluster campaign by its supporters.
EU officials have said there is no fallback plan for expansion if the Irish reject the treaty a second time.
European Commission President Romano Prodi said this week that a second rejection would be a "disaster scenario," adding that "we hope the Irish people realize just how important the referendum is."
Fearing a crisis within the European Union, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern campaigned for weeks to galvanize support for expansion, insisting that it would boost Ireland's export-oriented economy and enhance cultural diversity.
"I voted 'yes' because that is the right thing to do," Mr. Ahern said yesterday as he emerged from a polling station in north Dublin.
Some Irish critics said they did not object to accepting new EU members but that they oppose provisions of the treaty that they fear will reduce Ireland's influence and erode the country's cherished military neutrality.
"I believe that France and Germany are pushing the buttons here," said Dublin taxi driver Brian De Bheb. "And we're being told to toe the line."

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