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The Wall Street Journal Europe

June 25, 2001

International Commentary:
Why I Voted Against Nice

By David Quinn, a columnist for the Dublin edition of the London Times.

DUBLIN -- Those who voted against the Nice Treaty in the recent Irish referendum have been variously accused by their opponents of being racist, xenophobic, greedy, selfish and/or antibusiness.

If accusations of this sort continue to fly, one thing is certain; the Nice Treaty will be rejected again when it is put to the Irish people. The only chance the government has of seeing it pass is to take the concerns of the people seriously. This means addressing their concerns about the erosion of national sovereignty.

I am both pro-enlargement and pro-business, and I voted against the Nice Treaty. Let me explain why I voted as I did.

Proponents of the Nice Treaty said that the reforms of the EU that are set out in it are a necessary precondition to enlargement. Unless the voting weight of each member is changed, and unless the national veto is ceded over many areas of policy in favor of qualified majority voting, the EU will collapse under the strain of twelve additional members.

This argument has a certain logic to it, but to accept it is to accept that the EU should be given control over more and more areas of national policy in the first place.

Admittedly convinced euro-federalists like Romano Prodi were disappointed that QMV wasn't extended to even more areas, but had it been, it would have resulted in an even more resounding "No" vote. The fact that Mr. Prodi and others like him could not see this only shows how out of touch they are with public opinion, and not just in Ireland.

Surely the easiest way to enlarge the EU is to simplify it. If the Commission was not so eager to take control over so many areas of policy (such as antidiscrimination measures), which properly belong to the nation-state, then it wouldn't have to worry about the governance of the EU grinding to a halt as more and more new members are admitted.

Loss of Sovereignty

To put it another way, if the European Union were still the more humble European Economic Community, it could be enlarged with little fuss and without the need for complicated treaties such as Nice.

Those campaigning for Nice repeatedly insisted we had to ratify it in order to allow enlargement. Opponents said the Amsterdam Treaty already allowed for expansion up to 20 members without another Treaty. Yesterday, Romano Prodi told the Irish Times that enlargement could indeed take place without ratification of Nice. Prodi's intervention makes a "No" vote all the more likely next time around because it deprives the government of its central argument for ratification. If it is rejected again, then the EU is going to have to engage in a massive rethink of where it is going.

So far, Eurocrats are resisting this on the basis that the Irish vote represents the will of only a tiny fraction of the EU population and that this fraction cannot be allowed to impede the will of tens of millions. This analysis ignores the fact that were Nice to be put to the vote in countries such as Germany or Austria, France or Italy, there is a good chance it would be rejected. It also overlooks the fact that the peoples of Eastern Europe are deeply divided about whether they should join the EU at all.

When Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern were in Goteborg last weekend they all but apologized to their EU counterparts for the Irish vote. What they should have done was point out to them that whereas we had a vote, they did not, and so they were in no position to preach.

There was no prospect of this happening because, like all mainstream politicians in Ireland, they credit the EU with the Irish economic boom, and much else besides. In fact, the connection between the EU and our economic success is not as strong as europhiles like to think. What is often overlooked is that the Irish standard of living did not begin its ascent towards the EU average until the mid-1990s, more than 20 years after we joined what was then the EEC. Despite massive EU transfers to Ireland, for the first two decades of membership the Irish economy was one of the worst worst-performing in the EU.

What brought about the radical change in our fortunes was deregulation (admittedly encouraged by the EU), the social partnership between the government, the trade unions and employers, our young, highly trained population, and the slashing of our corporate tax rate. This last in particular has helped to attract American multinationals to Ireland. But if the EU's tax harmonizers were to have their way, we would have to increase our corporate tax rate and thereby lose one of our main competitive advantages.

Whether Irish europhiles will admit it or not, our economy is much more in sync with Britain's and America's than it is with those on the Continent. And it must be asked, since economic liberalization has served us so well, can it really be in our interests to throw in our lot with countries that have such inflexible labor markets and high levels of tax, resulting in high unemployment? It is no wonder that Charlie McCreevy, our most aggressively pro-business minister for finance ever, is something of a euroskeptic.

Leadership Panic

The "No" vote has thrown Irish politics into turmoil. All of the main parties have invested huge amounts of political capital in the EU, and now they are discovering that they are unable to carry a growing number of voters with them. This is throwing Ireland's chief governing party, Fianna Fail, in particular into a panic. It is traditionally a nationalist party, and if its leadership seems to be more pro-European than pro-Irish, it will lose its raison d'etre in the eyes of many voters.

The refusal to date of any of the main parties in Ireland to court the euroskeptical vote will eventually force some voters away from them into the arms of extremists, especially Sinn Fein, which will be able present itself as the sole representative of the Irish nation. To date, the vast majority of euroskeptics have been reluctant to do this, but as Irish euroskepticism hardens, they may feel they have no choice if the main parties insist on remaining so europhile.

If this pattern is replicated elsewhere in Europe, where voters have not even been given the safety valve of referendums as Ireland has, then the European project, which is aimed in large part at lancing the boil of nationalism, will in fact feed it. It has already happened in Austria. It will happen elsewhere unless some at least of the mainstream parties across Europe provide a platform for moderate euroskepticism. The irony is that gung-ho euro-federalism could, in the end, produce a backlash that will derail the entire EU project. That is in no one's interests.

The Irish rejection of Nice has already sparked something of a debate in Ireland about the direction of the EU. This is a very healthy democratic development that other countries would do well to imitate.

-- From The Wall Street Journal Europe


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