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Ireland Approves EU Expansion - 2002-10-20

The European Union is set to expand into several former Communist bloc countries after Irish voters approved the Nice Treaty. Final referendum results show Ireland voted by a two-to-one margin Saturday to pass the treaty, which sets the rules for EU enlargement.

The Irish government, and leaders across Europe, are breathing a sigh of relief over the referendum results. Ireland is the last country in the 15-nation European Union to approve the Nice Treaty.

Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern put his prestige on the line to win passage of the accord, which was defeated by Irish voters in a referendum a year ago.

Many who voted "no" last year said they feared the treaty would open the door to forcing Ireland join a European army sometime in the future. So this time, the referendum ballot included a constitutional amendment to protect Ireland's military neutrality.

Prime Minister Ahern said he was pleased the voters had changed their minds. "I made it clear throughout the campaign that I believed it was absolutely critical for Ireland's future that the people give the green light to enlargement. I am happy today that the decision was so decisive," Mr. Ahern said.

Opponents of the Nice Treaty included environmentalists, pacifists, socialists, and nationalists. They said Ireland could lose sovereignty and power under the new agreement. The "yes" camp included the major parties, business organizations, and labor unions.

Trevor Sergeant of the Green Party, which opposed the treaty, says the "yes" campaign played on voters fears. "There was an enormous amount of resources behind the "yes" campaign. And many people, because of the context of an economic downturn, were also feeling very unsure, and were easily frightened into voting yes," Mr. Sergeant said.

The Irish vote is being widely praised by leaders around Europe, particularly those in eight former Communist countries and two Mediterranean states that can now make final preparations to join the European Union in 2004.