According to the Observer, Ireland “cocked a snook at Europe” with its surprise rejection of the Treaty of Nice, which governs expansion of the European Union. Although only 34 percent of the electorate went to the polls in Thursday’s referendum, 54 percent voted “No.” The International Herald Tribune pointed out that this means “little more than half a million people could radically affect measures designed to turn the EU into a vast economic bloc of 360 million.” Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung sighed, “Fears around Ireland give a bitter foretaste of what problems the EU has ahead of it with 27 members. In its current constitution each small state can hold back the large union.” The treaty, drafted last December after days of acrimonious debate, was intended to streamline the EU’s decision-making process when it is enlarged from 15 member states to as many as 27. (For a summary of the Nice reforms, see this BBC backgrounder.)
All Ireland’s mainstream political parties, as well as many labor unions and Catholic bishops, supported the treaty, but post-election post-mortems concluded that the “Yes” forces lost the vote by waging a lackluster and complacent campaign, whereas the ragtag alliance of pacifists, environmentalists, republicans, and conservative Catholics that opposed ratification was driven and diligent. Concern that the formation of a European Rapid Reaction Force would compromise Irish neutrality was probably the most effective of the “No” campaign’s arguments. As an op-ed in the Sunday Telegraph noted, “[N]eutrality in Ireland is like wheelchair access, motherhood and polio jabs: you attack it at your peril.” The Irish Times concluded that Nice’s backers failed to provide voters with a clear understanding of the issues involved in the treaty: “Europe’s democratic deficit has come home to roost. Eurocrats careering down the fast track to integration need to pull into the next lay-by and take the time to explain the grand plan in ordinary language to ordinary citizens.” Several papers noted the irony that Ireland should be responsible for possibly derailing EU expansion. France’s Libération declared: “The best pupils of the European class have spit in the soup. … The blow is all the more treacherous because it comes from a country that owes its wealth to Europe.” A Sunday Telegraph op-ed, which managed to combine Euroskepticism with anti-Irish sentiment, noted:
Logically, there should be no more pro-European Union country anywhere than Ireland, for the gravy train from Brussels has been unloading a cornucopia of largesse into the Irish economy for nearly three decades. … After all, EEC and EU grants helped to transform a backward country dominated by a primitive agricultural industry with high emigration into the fastest growing economy in the free world, now in urgent need of 300,000 immigrants to maintain growth.
Following the referendum’s failure, EU leaders pledged to forge ahead with expansion plans, although it’s unclear what can be done to break the deadlock. All 15 members of the European Union must ratify the treaty, though Ireland was the only country to put it directly to voters. The Independent speculated that because of the low turnout in Thursday’s vote, a second referendum is likely, with a good possibility that Ireland will be offered an opt-out on European defense policy. An editorial in Le Monde headlined “Euroconfusion” observed that since the Treaty of Nice does not address the three issues that most exercised the Irish “No” voters—neutrality, fiscal harmonization, and the loss of subsidies now that it can be considered a “rich” country—it is hard to know what can be done to bring Ireland into the fold. The Financial Times raised a possibility that EU ministers will dread: “Renegotiating the Nice treaty is not an option any EU leader will want to follow but it should not be excluded. The present treaty is a poor compromise and could well be improved.”
Moderates vs. mullahs: Late last week, the papers raved over a candidate, who, as expected, won landslide re-election against weak conservative opposition despite failure to enact policies during his first term. The scene was not London but Tehran, where President Mohammed Khatami took 77 percent of the votes in Friday’s election—a larger margin than he achieved in 1997. Even though reactionary state-owned television and radio downplayed the election, the Observer reported that Khatami won the electorate’s “unequivocal backing in his fight to transfer power from an orthodox clerical establishment to an Islamic democracy.” Everyone agreed that Khatami’s reform agenda faces a severe challenge—control of Iran’s armed forces, judiciary, police, and the “council of guardians” rests with religious authorities headed by “supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khameini, but the Financial Times speculated that “the renewed mandate will give the president more bargaining power in his negotiations with hardline clerics opposed to his programme of political and social liberalization.” Seven million Iranians have turned 15, Iran’s minimum voting age, since the 1997 election, and an editorial in Spain’s El País said demographics are on Khatami’s side:
Each year that passes there is more support for greater freedom, respect for human rights, and diversity of ideas. Forty-five percent of the Iranian population is under 15, and all the statistics indicate that at least 90 percent of the new voters favor Khatami and an open and democratic Iran that wants nothing to do with the medieval dogma of the mullahs.
An editorial in Britain’s Guardian argued that the isolation caused by U.S. sanctions against Tehran fortifies religious fundamentalists that, in turn, “pushes Iran further into Russia’s embrace and reduces the chances that Mr Khatami, habitually outflanked by the theocrats, will be any more effective in a second term in modernising his society.” The Jerusalem Post made an impassioned plea for the extension of the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which is due to expire in August:
[T]hough Khatami has frequently been labeled a “moderate” by his cheerleaders among the Western media, the term is largely a misnomer. He is, after all, a product of the system, not a revolutionary, and his aim is to repair Iran’s current system rather than replace it. As much as Westerners might wish to believe that the struggle between Khatami and his opponents is a fateful battle between “good guys” and “bad guys,” in practice it is more akin to one between “bad guys” and “worse guys.” … An extension of the law would send a strong signal to Teheran and Tripoli that there is a price to be paid for continuing to support terrorism and violence.