Ireland's rejection of the European Union's enlargement treaty in Saturday's referendum, EU officials say, would leave the 15-nation bloc with no clear path to the scheduled eastward expansion. Ireland's "no" vote, according to European officials, would throw the historic EU eastward expansion into disarray.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen, who last week recommended that 10 East European and Mediterranean countries be admitted to the union by 2004, says he does not know if enlargement can proceed if Ireland repeats its rejection of the treaty that would adapt the bloc's institutions to accommodate new members.
"If the Treaty of Nice is rejected in Ireland again, then I do not know how we can continue with enlargement," he said. "I do not even know whether we can continue."
Ireland is the only EU country to submit the Nice treaty to a popular referendum. The treaty has already been approved by the parliaments of the other 14 EU members. So it is up to Irish voters to make or break the enlargement process.
Pat Cox, the Irish president of the European Parliament, is among those urging his fellow countrymen to vote in favor of the treaty this time, after they rejected it last year. He says a "no" vote would set back the project of reunifying Europe 13 years after the end of the Cold War.
"If it should fail, the treaty is dead," he said. "A necessary political step is missing. It would provoke uncertainty, and, I think, put our timetable into some disarray."
Even though EU officials repeat the mantra that "there is no plan B" in case of a negative vote, they are studying alternatives. Analyst Kirsty Hughes, at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, has proposed that the EU write the Nice Treaty's key institutional provisions into accession accords with the candidate countries. But she acknowledges that there are both political and legal drawbacks to this approach.
"If the Irish say 'no', and then you put some of Nice into the accession treaties, you may have an Irish citizen or an Irish organization saying to the European Court of Justice 'but that's not fair, we just voted no to this. That can't be right legally,'" he said. "And even if it's made legally watertight, you may have a similar argument politically which says 'this is ignoring the democratic process. The Irish said 'no' , but you're taking half of what they said 'no' to and you're putting it into these new treaties.'"
Another possible solution would be to push all enlargement-related questions into the debate on a European Constitution that EU has just launched but which is not scheduled to wind up until 2004. The trouble with that route is that it would delay enlargement for at least two years and would cause an anti-EU backlash in the candidate countries.
Some officials and diplomats say an Irish "no" to the Nice Treaty would actually be good for the EU because it would give it time to solve questions such as how much money the new members would get and which countries would pay for enlargement. But Ms. Hughes says that is a cynical argument because, with no deadline facing them, the current EU members would only postpone making decisions on these issues.