Pins and needles

  • 2002-10-17
No "plan B?"

European Union leaders, from Enlargement Commissioner Gunter Verheugen to Danish Prime Minister Anders Vogh Rasmussen, keep insisting that there is no alternative for EU expansion if Irish voters turn down the Nice Treaty on Oct. 19.

The treaty spells out the changes - voting rights, parliamentary representation, etc. - the bloc would undergo before it admits new members.

Voters in Ireland, the only country that requires a national referendum on the treaty, narrowly voted it down last summer.

The first "no" vote had more to do with other elements of the treaty - like the rapid reaction force - than with enlargment.

A second "no" vote would surely lead to massive political backlash among EU members and considerable angst among the candidate countries.

EU officials like to throw out the words "historic" and "crucial" when they talk about enlargement, which would right the wrongs of the 20th century.

Yet they're telling us they don't have a plan B if Ireland votes "no."

How could the massive bureacracy that defines the EU not have a backup?

But hold on a second. European Commission President Romano Prodi said soon after the first Irish "no" that there was a way around it. He has since changed his mind and said, upon further reflection, that the treaty is, in fact, quite necessary.

Too late. So there is a plan B. Now the question is what could it be?

The easiest solution would be to take the key elements of the treaty and place them in each countries' individual accession treaties. This is what Prodi alluded to and it would certainly be the least painful.

But even those changes would have to be approved unanimously by member states. That would give each member state a chance to rethink enalrgement and countries like France which aren't thrilled with sharing agricultural subsidies might rethink the whole thing.

Most people in EU member countries are not wildly enthusiastic about enlargement. It has the most support, ironically, in Ireland, where 60 percent say approve.

What has become clear throughout the debate between the first Irish vote and the upcoming one is that enlargement should be the priority, not the Nice treaty. It's hard to believe that enlargement could be held up this way and it very well could with a second "no."

A "no" would, in turn, raise serious doubts among people in the candidate countries themselves, many of whom are not crazy about joining the EU anyway, according to polls.

If the Irish vote "yes," which looks fairly likely, it does not absolve the EU and its officials of still investigating a plan B - one that could be implemented at any time during this tedious process of making Europe whole again.