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Ireland faces EU dilemma

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

DUBLIN, Republic of Ireland (CNN) -- The trouble with democracy, governments find, is that voters don't always take your advice.

Voters in the Republic of Ireland were asked last June for a verdict on the Treaty of Nice, the document designed to reform the European Union's institutions to let it enlarge from 15 to 25 countries.

Most Irish voters didn't go to the polls. But a majority of those who did ignored the major parties, the unions, employers and the Catholic church -- all of which had urged a yes vote in the referendum.

But the people said no to Nice. For the Irish government, anxious not to upset the other 14 in the EU, it's an enduring awkwardness.

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"It poses a dilemma for us because if the 15 don't ratify the Treaty of Nice by the end of the year, there is a very major problem," says Republic of Ireland Foreign Minister Bryan Cowen. "We don't believe it's in our national interests that Ireland put itself in that position."

But why did the people say no? Fear maybe of a European superstate? Concerns about less help for Ireland as applicant countries get more assistance? Confusion? Or just distrust of the political classes?

The chairman of the National Forum on Europe, set up to stimulate debate, notes concern about Ireland's neutrality in an EU taking on a bigger military role.

"The main concern actually is the whole implication of neutrality in foreign policy, of the Rapid Reaction Force, that sort of thing, fear of being dragooned into somebody else's foreign wars," says Sen. Maurice Hayes. "There's fear of a small country being submerged in a huge conglomerate."

Foreign Minister Cowen differs.

"What the EU is trying to do -- getting involved in peacekeeping, conflict resolution, conflict prevention -- is very much in line with our foreign policy traditions anyway," Cowen says.

Virtually all agree, though, that the Irish people remain in favour of EU enlargement.

"There seems to be a strong view among the Irish people that the 12 applicant countries who've applied to join deserve the chance to participate with the rest of us," says Alan Dukes, a member of the Irish Parliament.

"Unfortunately people didn't take this particular opportunity to adopt this instrument of doing that, which leaves us with a conundrum. My feeling is that if we put the same question again to the people in the same way, the answer will be another resounding no," Dukes says.

The EU is waiting for Ireland. Enlargement from 15 to 25 countries cannot happen without endorsement of the Treaty of Nice or something similar by the existing members.

But there's no obvious outcome yet to Ireland's big debate. Nor is any decision likely on a new referendum before a general election due this spring.


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