EU scrambles to overcome Irish 'no' vote

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Politicians in Dublin, Brussels and the 12 nations queueing to join the European Union were yesterday scrambling for ways to overcome Ireland's shock rejection of an EU treaty paving the way for expansion.

Alarm in the capitals of applicant East European countries was tempered by Brussels' determination not to allow the enlargement plans to be derailed by the dramatic setback.

However, the rejection of the Nice Treaty poses a huge headache for Europe's leaders, who negotiated the accord at an acrimonious summit on the French Riviera last December.

Ireland's unexpected vote will overshadow tomorrow's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg, as well as Friday's EU summit of heads of government in Göteborg.

Each member state must ratify the treaty before it can come into force, and Nice sets out the minimum institutional changes needed for the EU to admit up to 12 new members.

That is almost certain to mean another referendum in Ireland, probably within the next 18 months, and the search is on for "concessions" which can be offered to Dublin to persuade voters that their concerns have been taken into account.

When Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, its voters won four specific opt-outs to that treaty, which they backed in a second referendum the following year.

Because of the low turnout in Ireland and the wide range of objections put forward by the "no" campaign ­ some unrelated to the specifics of the Nice accord ­ the task of appeasing Irish voters is not straightforward.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, who campaigned hard for a "yes" vote, admitted that his side had not succeeded in "overcoming the negative fears and perceptions, which in many cases were generated around issues largely outside of the treaty".

Mr Ahern added that there were "genuine anxieties and concerns about the future, which go well beyond the terms of the treaty itself", and that the government would have to "reflect deeply on how those may best be addressed".

The ragbag coalition opposed to Nice, which included the Greens, Sinn Fein and some religious groups, painted the treaty as a threat to all small EU countries, to Ireland's neutrality, its EU subsidies and its abortion laws.

The first issue is hard to address without unpicking the treaty although the second could be answered by a formal declaration underlining Ireland's neutral status. But few concessions can be offered over concerns at the loss of European cash: in 2006 Ireland, which has received six times as much from Europe as it has put in since it joined in 1973, will lose eligibility to the lucrative structural and cohesion funds which will be directed at poorer east European nations entering the EU. The complaint on abortion is based on the text of Europe's Charter of Fundamental Rights which, though proclaimed at Nice, is outside the treaty.

"We are convinced that the Irish politicians and the EU will do their best to explain and demonstrate to the Irish voters before the next referendum the benefits coming from the enlargement," said the Hungary's foreign ministry spokesman, Gabor Horvath.

The Polish foreign ministry added that it was confident "that the EU ­ driven by a feeling of responsibility and solidarity ­ will find a solution that will allow the Nice Treaty to come into force and create the structural framework for enlargement".

The EU is supposed to have its legislation ready by the end of 2002 but the first enlargement is not expected before 2004. In a joint statement, the President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, and Goran Persson, the Prime Minister of Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, promised to work to find "a way forward" that did not involve "changing the substance of the Nice Treaty".