News Analysis: Will the Irish send plans for a greater Europe back to the drawing board?

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The distinguished Irish public figure set it out in down-to-earth terms: "The Irish don't want to be thought of as the people that took all the drink that was going when it was free, then shagged off when it was time to pay their round."

The distinguished Irish public figure set it out in down-to-earth terms: "The Irish don't want to be thought of as the people that took all the drink that was going when it was free, then shagged off when it was time to pay their round."

The issues surrounding the Treaty of Nice, on which the people of the Irish Republic will vote on a referendum tomorrow, are copious and complex. But if the treaty is approved, that basic sense of fair play will be one of the crucial factors in getting it through. If, however, the Irish vote against – as they did last year – all of Europe will be in disarray.

A defeat for Nice, at the hands of a country whose population makes up only a couple of per cent of the European total, will not hold up the intricately crafted plan for EU enlargement for ever. But it will cause much disruption, in effect sending Europe back to the drawing-board.

The Republic is the only country which has submitted the treaty to a referendum. It has occasioned much soul-searching and self-examination among the Irish. Most favour enlargement as a concept, but they have been thrashing out whether achieving it through the Treaty of Nice could endanger their economy, their influence in Europe and their traditional military neutrality.

Some of the most poignant, and possibly most effective, moments in the campaign have come when people from the countries seeking to get into Europe have spoken up at the scores of public debates held all over the Republic. Thus a woman from the Polish embassy stood up at a meeting in Dublin's Mansion House to ask, in heavily accented but excellent English, for post-Cold War Poland to be given the chance to leave behind decades of under-development.

The paradox is that the Irish, who have always been so ardently pro-Europe, could hold up the entire thrust of continental development.

Thirty years ago 83 per cent of its people voted to go into Europe, and that level of enthusiasm is probably still there. But sections of the population are worried about neutrality and the spectre of a Europe dominated by its larger countries.

In last year's referendum the "yes" camp took its eye off the ball, assuming it would go through on the nod, as votes on Europe always have. But pressure groups and parties such as Sinn Fein and the Greens mounted energetic campaigns and in the event Nice was rejected, on a 34 per cent turn-out, by 54 to 46 per cent.

This came as a severe shock. The government minister Michael McDowell attributed the result to a "growing feeling among some people that the European project was being pursued in an aggressive spirit which ignored or overrode the interests, concerns and ambitions of many Irish people".

A government backbencher was more blunt: "Condescension was the problem. We thought we could stick up a few posters and the public would dutifully do the business. They didn't because we didn't."

The shock of the rejection was all the greater since the Republic has gained so much from Europe, not only economically but in national self-respect and self-assurance.

Joining Europe brought massive support for Irish agriculture and industry, taking place at a juncture when Ireland was moving from an isolationalist phase.

Dr Patrick Hillery, the country's first European commissioner, who went on to become President of Ireland, recalled: "Ireland had not been in the war and European countries felt that maybe Ireland did not have the commitment to this totally new structure of Europe."

But from the beginning the Irish plunged in with unfeigned enthusiasm, realising that Europe offered a means of broadening the economy by lessening its dependence on the British market.

Ireland displayed no British-style ambivalence about Europe. Its centuries-old tradition of links with other Catholic nations such as France and Spain, provided an instinctive Europeanism which was reinforced as money flowed in from Brussels.

At the same time Irish ministers and officials revelled in their new role on the international arena. Europe offered a wider stage for the country's sometimes brilliant diplomatic corps and for outstanding political figures such as the former prime minister Garret Fitzgerald. (Dr Fitzgerald, now in his 70s, has come out of retirement to campaign for a "yes" vote.) He summed up Europe's significance: "Outside it we could have achieved none of the spectacular gains that have shifted us in a relatively short period of time from being by far the poorest country in northern Europe to being one of the better-off states."

Echoing this, the Irishman Pat Cox, who is president of the European Parliament, presented the vote as a historically defining moment. He declared that a "no" vote "would signal a disconnection from Ireland's European adventure, the first unbundling in a generation of one of the indispensable foundations of modern Irish success".

The Irish reputation as good Europeans has paid uncommon dividends, with Dublin obtaining more than its fair share of Brussels largesse. The former Irish commissioner Peter Sutherland argued that, because of this positive approach, "We have got the rub of the green and have been given exceptional treatment."

Hardly any of those pushing for a "no" vote could be described as anti-European, and few are really against EU enlargement. Rather, the concerns relate to a series of issues which include the perceived threat to Irish military neutrality, the reduction of Irish influence in an enlarged Europe and a worry that larger countries will gain too much power.

The fact is that any referendum proposition generates an automatic coalition of opponents who may have different and indeed contradictory reasons for opposing it.

Many who voted "no" last year are now further aggrieved that the Irish people, having delivered their Nice verdict last year, are being dragged back to the polls by a government which wants them to change their minds.

Some argue that an undercurrent of racism has been detectable in elements of the "no" camp, where some have raised the spectre of a flood of eastern European immigrants taking Irish jobs. The irony is lost on many that the rest of the world holds tens of millions of people of Irish extraction, migrants and the descendants of migrants, who have made up the Irish diaspora which has reached every corner of the globe.

Stories abound in pubs of people who have arrived from eastern Europe and are already, allegedly, taking jobs from locals. Then there is a whole set of claims and whispers that blow-ins are sponging off the Irish welfare state. One tale has it that immigrant women can get expensive hair-dos at Ireland's expense. There is, however, nothing much beyond lounge-bar gossip to substantiate any of this.

Still, the government has felt the need to provide some assurance on this point. Michael McDowell, the Justice Minister, declared: "The claim that enlargement will open the floodgates to an internal EU migration from the east is an exercise in cynical misinformation."

There was, he said, no evidence that Ireland would have problems resulting from the free movement of workers, and in any case the government retained the freedom to take measures to protect the labour market.

The overall "no" campaign was judged to have suffered a setback when it emerged that one prominent spokesman had attended a Bavarian rally held by a neo-Nazi organisation which the German government has tried to ban.

"The racism is there under the surface," said one close observer. "Mostly it's in a coded form like a fear for jobs or something like that, but I think it's there subliminally."

Generally, however, the campaign has turned on much more high-minded concerns, such as the neutrality which the Irish value so much, and which so infuriated Churchill during the Second World War. It played a big part in last year's vote. The government has tackled the issue by obtaining a formal European assurance that neutrality will be respected.

That move is part of a more focused "yes" campaign which encompasses not just the government and all the large parties, but big business and the trade unions. Most of the media is also on board, so that almost the entire establishment and just about every member of the great and the good are pushing for a "yes" vote. Their combined influence – and the large amounts of money at their disposal – is having an effect, with opinion polling indicating a distinct and probably decisive swing towards the "yes" camp.

Crucially the government seems to have avoided what it most dreaded, a protest backlash against its own current unpopularity. Both the government and the main opposition parties have begged voters not to use Nice to punish the Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. The Labour leader, Ruairi Quinn, said: "The public desire to give this deceitful and dishonest government a bloody nose is understandable and palpable. But, tempting though that may be, this issue is just too important for that." Another opposition politician weighed in: "This is not the time to take revenge."

Losing this second referendum on Nice would drastically and perhaps fatally undermine the standing of Mr Ahern, who would face both domestic and international humiliation. To lose one European referendum may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two would certainly look like carelessness.

A "no" vote this time round would be extremely bad news for Europe, according to all the other EU countries and according to the 10 applicant countries as well. The question arises whether it would be specifically and especially bad for Ireland itself.

Dr Fitzgerald says Ireland would face a "seriously upset" group of countries; Noel Dorr, a former senior diplomat, says Ireland would be "in the doghouse". The Prime Minister of one of the applicants, Slovenia, warned that another "no" would be remembered for years – "for decades even".

A Dublin foreign policy expert summed up: "We are one of those small countries that recognise they cannot control the world, and instead move to an idealistic view of foreign relations. That gives us a kind of relevance.

"Essentially the question now is whether we throw away the stock-in-trade of decades of being dedicated Europeans, discarding all that goodwill."

Another "no" to Nice means that when in future Ireland goes looking for allies, say to keep its low corporate tax rate, countries that used to be well-disposed friends may have become exasperated and hostile.

Last time, the "no" campaigners had most of the idealism on their side, since they concentrated on larger issues. Many of the "yes" people presented Nice as mostly a mundane collection of technical adjustments.

The "yes" side thus went into that vote on a prosaic basis rather than pushing it as an idealistic departure capable of improving the lives of millions.

This time the enlargement issue has filled some of that vacuum, appealing to the Irish sense of fair play while at the same time providing reassurances about the voters' deep-seated anxieties.

The vote will therefore hinge on issues that go deep into the Irish psyche and indeed into human nature, with its balance of suspicions and aspirations, of idealism and realpolitik. A "yes" vote tomorrow will restore and reaffirm Ireland's reputation as the nice guys of Europe.