The Nice showdown

  • 2002-10-17
  • J. Michael Lyons
Michael Bourke is Ireland's honorary consul in Latvia in addition to being the president of a Latvian bank. He's in a unique position to share the thoughts of many Irish people and know intimately the effect of the Nice Treaty on candidate countries. Bourke talked to J. Michael Lyons a few days before Ireland's vote on the treaty.

The Nice Treaty has been couched by many outside the country as simply Ireland's vote on the enlargement of the European Union. However, the treaty lays down the means by which the union will deal with enlargement.

It changes the voting system in the Council of Ministers to a majority rules on many issues and it changes representation, giving more weight to larger countries. It also brings a military "rapid reaction force" under the auspices of the EU's Political and Security Committee.

These issues are being raised in Ireland as much as enlargement.

Nonetheless, if Irish voters vote "no" on the treaty the process of enlargement will need to be rethought.

In Ireland is this referendum being regarded as a test of Irish voters' approval or disapproval of the European Union itself? Will this gauge any sort of sentiment on the EU?

This second vote certainly has taken on a new meaning. The first time out a lot of people didn't vote because it seemed to a lot of people at the time that it was a done deal - that there was no major need to come out and vote. Ireland as a country has done pretty well out of the EU and has generally been pretty happy with the way things have turned out.

But there is the usual problem of dealing with a big bureaucracy in Brussels and finding more and more regulations coming down from Brussels rather than from Dublin. Lots of frustration has come out of that, particularly in the areas of agriculture, fisheries and so on.

But generally speaking I think people were surprised with the first vote and now there is much more of an awareness of the issues involved and the government has spent a lot of time teasing out the subject. Not necessarily beating people over the head forcing them to vote "yes," but they've actually spent a lot more time taking the core issues and redefining them and putting more clarity in them.

Is there a feeling that the rapid reaction force could chip away at Ireland's control over its own neutrality?

Yes. It's really in many cases not that Ireland is changing. It's more that it wants the option to decide.

That's the way I feel - that there's nobody pushing us into strategic alliances or military alliances. It wants to keep the option. We're a very small nation in Europe and we just feel there is a better role to be played in peacekeeping and trying to resolve issues rather than going into a military situation. That's one of the really core issues.

It seems for most people in Ireland this vote is not about being against letting new members in.

Definitely not.

What is it about?

It's about a lot of different issues. And this time it may even be about more issues than the first time around.

Certainly it's about this neutrality/defense issue. The opposition have brought it out front to scare people a little bit. I think now that's clarified I think it's less of a problem.

I think there has also been a protest on the whole tendency to centralize the EU into Brussels and into the big countries. The Irish feel that this is kind of a lessening of democracy and that the big guys are going to get more and more power. That's definitely an issue.

But I have no doubt in my heart that it would also be an issue in a vote in Finland or Denmark or a lot of other countries. I think that issue has been addressed in different ways now, but I think that's still a core issue.

The Irish understand that Europe is changing and they would like to see these countries in this part of the world in. The Irish understand that they deserve the chance at the economic spoils as well.

The "no" side has brought up the issue of mass immigration to Ireland once enlargement goes through. Is that a real concern?

That's kind of a policy issue that has to be sorted out.

There was mass immigration from Ireland to the United States for many, many years and, you know, America has never said "We don't want this mass immigration."

You have to have a policy here in the center of Europe, I think. Everyone wants to generally work in his home country. Nobody wants to be an economic migrant.

I think the EU has got to clearly show that there's going to be a heavy investment in this part of Europe to encourage people and industry and people to locate here. It needs to sell the concept to Irish firms, for example, who have at the moment to import labor from places like Latvia, Lithuania, Rumania, Poland or wherever, that maybe it makes sense to relocate part of the industry out here and that the EU supports that, perhaps with some grant aid or whatever.

That's something that, to me, has been a little bit missing here. I've not seen that message sold to Western Europe.

Do you buy this argument that the Nice Treaty hurts smaller countries by taking away the vote of unanimity and replacing it with a majority vote on pretty big issues like industrial policy and so on? Does it worry you that Germany or France could hijack the process?

It's always a worry when you join a bloc with big guys. I don't think realistically you can have small countries keeping a hold over big countries.

It's a democracy at the end of the day, and it has to work along democratic lines with majority votes and so on, and I don't think you can reasonably expect a country of 3 or 4 million people should be able to hold up the whole show.

Things have to be decided democratically. It's been shown - for example the current president of the European Parliament is Pat Cox, an Irish MEP - that small countries can have very senior civil servants.

How much concern from Latvian officials has been brought to you? Have there been any lobbying efforts?

No. I know that some officials have been over to Ireland from time to time.

Do you think the Nice Treaty further creates a two-tier system in the EU?

I think it probably does. I think that's inevitable because we have to have some machinery to get decisions to work otherwise it's going to be bogged down in all sorts of ways.

Part of the enlargement of any club is that there has to be very clear rules on how it's going to work or else we're going to fall back to what the Soviet Union was and that's total chaos and disorder. You don't want that.

Inevitably it's going to be two-tier in many ways because you're going to get a sizable bloc of poorer nations joining. They obviously have to transform. That's a big challenge for Western Europe.

We've seen what the challenge of East Germany was for West Germany. They're still struggling with it.

How much is this vote on the Nice Treaty tied to Ireland's local politics?

Unfortunately because the economic picture has turned quite a bit in Ireland. There's a lot of disgruntlement mainly because when the government ran for re-election in May the economic problems were not pointed out to the people. People feel a little bit sore that now they're told that a major correction has got to be made that's going to hurt a lot of things.

There's a danger of a protest vote kicking in to punish this government. This is the first chance at the polls to punish the government for the economic downturn.

Out of fairness the opposition parties have been canvassing very hard and saying "Don't use Nice to punish the government. It is a different issue."

They're trying to make the point that this is important. It seems that the message is slowly beginning to get there. It looks like the vote is beginning to head toward the positive.

Elections were held not long ago and in a lot of democracies new governments like to pass the most unsavory things that they can pass to get them out of the way and then ease off in the following years and slide into the next election. Is there a danger, if some unpopular legislation has been passed, that it will effect the Nice vote?

I don't think so. There has been so much press on this now. After the vote the last time there was so much negative reaction. The Irish were kind of shocked and taken aback that they were becoming almost the bad boys of Europe.

I know from talking to colleagues and friends that are living in Ireland that people who voted "no" last time are kind of realizing the focus of this thing and are saying this time "we'll vote 'yes' this time because this is an important issue for Europe."

So I'm hoping that sticks through the whole process and it's not a protest vote.

What happens if it fails? What does it mean for Ireland? Does it make them the pariah of Europe?

That's a huge question.

A lot of the success in Ireland is our link to the United States. We, I think, are the single biggest beneficiary of U.S. overseas investment. I don't think that's going to go away. Ireland will always be seen as a favorite place for American investment in Europe.

But certainly it wouldn't encourage more investment from continental Europe like it's been going. It might send a negative vibe and that would not be good. On the other hand we're still in a very different cycle - Britain and ourselves - than any other economy in Europe.

We've been a low taxation, high performing economy whereas most in Europe have been high taxation, low performing economies. We will not lose that. But obviously it would not be good and it would require a big PR entreat to repair the damage.

A lot of people are saying now that there is a "plan B." Can we assume that enlargement will go on if the vote is "no" on Nice?

I'm sure there is a plan B. I'm sure in August people were not sitting stupidly waiting for this vote. There must be some alternatives being thought of by people whose job is to keep this process moving. I think it will continue, and I think the Irish people know that too. It is a process that you cannot stop and it's an important process for Europe. It's got to continue.