The French daily Libération dubbed it the Irish ambush, while Le Monde called it the Irish alert. Both were right. In the curious way that democracy has of upsetting the best-laid plans of the proud and powerful, a strange coalition of Greens, anti-abortion activists, Irish nationalists and detractors of Prime Minister Bertie Ahern voted 54-46% against ratifying the European Union's Nice Treaty, and in so doing, managed to throw the ungainly process of reforming and expanding the E.U. into chaos. As Ahern, embarrassed and chastened, scrambled last week to recover, delegates at the E.U. summit in Gothenburg wondered whether the no vote should be ignored as a quirky bleat from a peripheral country, or be heeded, like the warble of a canary in a coal mine, as a crucial warning.
Publicly, the big dogs of European integration dismissed the Irish upset as no big deal. The French assembly quickly backed the Nice Treaty last week 407-27, with 113 abstentions. At a summit in Freiberg, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pledged to work for Nice's ratification "according to the existing timetable and without any delay."
That disregard for the Irish result seemed high-handed, since to be binding, the treaty must be ratified by every E.U. country. Only after that can the union admit new members, which was the treaty's main selling point. But disregarding inconvenient facts has become a habit in Europe, where leaders paint a rosy picture of "irreversible" integration and progress that seems untethered to the messy, awkward reality of existing institutions. Privately, many senior E.U. leaders worry about its "democratic deficit" and institutional sclerosis. Even in public, European Commission President Romano Prodi said, "I wasn't enthusiastic the morning after Nice and haven't changed my view since." But at Gothenburg, the consensus was that it's up to Ahern, not the E.U., to figure out how to finesse the problem Ireland's pesky voters have created.
He may be able to pull it off. Stung by charges that the treaty is a dog's breakfast cooked up by élites and foisted on the electorate with little discussion, he announced last week a "National Forum on Europe" to engage dissenting groups and raise public awareness, presumably before calling another referendum in 2002. He knows he can certainly improve on the lackluster campaign the "yes" forces ran. Turnout was only 33%, allowing passionate minorities anti-abortion activists, Greens worried that the new Rapid Reaction Force would undermine Irish neutrality, Sinn Fein members eager to weaken Ahern before the 2002 election to swamp widespread but diffuse pro-European feelings. A similar anti-European coalition lost three earlier referendums, which gives Ahern some running room. On the other hand, Ireland is now on the cusp of a major shift, from being the E.U.'s biggest beneficiary $30 billion over the last 25 years to a net financial contributor, thanks to its booming economy. It would be a harsh result for the poor countries of Eastern Europe that are desperate to join the E.U., though hardly a first, if a prosperous Ireland chose to pull up the ladder behind itself.