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Irish Voters Weigh in on EU Expansion - 2002-10-19

Ireland is voting in a referendum Saturday that could clear the way for European Union membership for 10 new countries, mostly from the former Communist bloc. This is the second time Ireland has voted on the Nice Treaty, which would set rules for EU expansion.

At lot is at stake in the Irish referendum. Ten countries with 75-million residents could join the European Union in 2004 if Irish voters approve. And Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has laid his political prestige on the line to win passage of the Nice Treaty.

Mr. Ahern was badly stung last year when Irish voters rejected the treaty in a referendum. Many voted out of fear that a bigger EU could force Ireland to someday join a European army. So this time the referendum includes a clause to protect Ireland's military neutrality.

Mr. Ahern says Ireland's reputation with the rest of Europe would be badly damaged if the treaty is defeated again.

"I appeal to the Irish people to vote for the strongest ever protection for our neutrality," Mr. Ahern said. "To vote to give other countries the opportunities we've had. To vote for an Ireland which remains at the heart of the European Union. And to come out, most importantly, on Saturday and vote yes."

Opponents to the treaty include environmentalists, pacifists, socialists and nationalists.

They argue that the Nice Treaty hurts the smaller nations in Europe, while benefiting big countries such as Germany and France. Some worry that Ireland could be flooded by cheap labor from eastern Europe. But most insist they are not against EU expansion as long as the alliance adds new countries under the current treaties.

Officials at EU headquarters in Brussels say expansion would be thrown into disarray if Ireland votes no again. The other 14 nations in the EU have already ratified the Nice Treaty through their parliaments.

Final results of the Irish referendum are not expected until late Sunday.