Leaders calm fears over Irish neutrality

Europe's leaders stepped up efforts to help the Irish government win a vital second referendum on the Nice Treaty yesterday, drafting a declaration to ease fears that the country's traditional neutrality could be compromised.

Drafts of the statement, due to be released at the Seville summit, underline the fact that the Nice Treaty does not tie Ireland into "binding mutual defence commitments" or involve it in a "European army".

Fear of Ireland losing its neutrality was one of the reasons given by Irish voters when they sent shockwaves across the European Union by rejecting the Nice Treaty in a referendum last year. The concern arose because the EU is establishing a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force, which would take part in peace-keeping operations or crisis intervention.

The treaty spells out a range of reforms to EU decision-making designed to pave the way for the expansion of the union to include up to 10 new member states. European officials say that if a second Irish referendum fails to approve the treaty, it would deal a severe blow to prospects of enlargement.

The declaration agreed by EU leaders says the Nice treaty "does not impose any binding mutual defence commitments. Nor does the development of the union's capacity to conduct humanitarian and crisis management tasks involve the establishment of a European army".

In addition to the EU declaration ­ which critics point out has no legal force ­ the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, was planning to publish his own declaration stating that Ireland was "not bound by any mutual defence commitment. Nor is Ireland party to any plans to develop a European army".

The Irish government declaration also promises a referendum on any future treaty which would entail a sacrifice of Irish neutrality.

Yesterday Pat Cox, president of the European Parliament and an Irish MEP, described the declaration as "a positive contribution to a future referendum", which is expected to take place in the autumn.

He appealed to European leaders not to meddle in the internal debate and warned against any statements which might be interpreted as an attempt at "external manipulation" of the Irish electorate. But he conceded that there was "no plan B" in the event of a second referendum "no".