Bertie Ahern is considered one of Ireland's most popular prime ministers during the past half-century. He is called "Bertie Boom" by his countrymen, who have been enjoying, during his tenure, the most impressive prosperity the Irish Republic has ever known.
In five days time, on October 19, this popularity will face one of its most important tests: the citizens of Ireland will go to the ballot boxes to participate in a referendum - their second within 16 months - on the Treaty of Nice. This treaty provides the legal framework for the enlargement of the European Union, which is expected in 2004. Ireland is the only country among the 15 EU members that has organized - for constitutional reasons - a referendum on the treaty, and the only member state that has not yet ratified it.
The great tension that prevails at the European Commission could be confirmed by 20 senior Irish journalists who were invited to visit Brussels recently. The Commission did not scrimp on beer and mussels to help the writers form a positive picture of Europe which they would then present to the Irish public. All this was so that the Irish would not reject the treaty again and perhaps cause the failure of the most ambitious project undertaken by the EU since the establishment of a single currency.
The great anxiety in Europe about a defeat at the Irish ballot boxes has already led a number of publicists to develop far-reaching parallels linking September 11 and the expected attack on Iraq to October 19.
In reply to questions from Ha'aretz, Ahern says that his government has learned the lesson of its failure in the previous referendum, which was held in June 2001. "This time there has been a real national debate about our place in the EU," he says. This time, the rank and file voters were not left to the devices of the opponents of Europe. An investigation by The Irish Times found that Ahern's camp, which supports the Nice Treaty, has invested 10 times more than those opposed to the treaty.
The latest surveys show that supporters of the treaty are gaining momentum: 44 percent of the respondents said that they would vote Yes, as opposed to 22 percent who said they would vote No. But before the previous referendum the polls showed a similar trend. Moreover, the number of undecided votes, about a week before the referendum, remains high - 27 percent.
Ahern is trying to stress that the rejection of the first treaty did not deal with the real issues. Most of the participants then wanted to say "No to Europe" concerning matters that have nothing to do with the Nice Treaty and the idea of enlargement upon which it is based. The commentators share this assessment: The Greens and the extreme left movements said No to the industrialization of Europe that is "too liberal" for their tastes; the fundamentalist Christians cast a vote against the Continent, which has become "a synonym for decadence, divorce and abortions," and the nationalist Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Northern Irish Catholic underground) wanted to protest the European opposition to the idea of "greater Ireland."
There were some voters who focused on the real issue and expressed the anxiety that enlarging the EU eastward would diminish Ireland's relative power in Europe, and would make it necessary to transfer European aid to the poor countries of eastern Europe. However, it seems that most of the opposition came from the pacifists and the supporters of Irish neutrality, who did not agree to extending the common foreign and defense policy of the EU and to the establishment of a European rapid reaction force. To deal with this issue, says Ahern, we persuaded our colleagues in the EU to accept a special declaration in which they recognized our neutral status and promised not to impinge on it.
On one of the posters of the Nice Treaty supporters there is a man making love, and the slogan "It's better 2 B inside" - that is, inside the EU. To the less sophisticated, Ahern's government has explained that the $40 billion dollars that have flowed into Dublin's coffers since it joined the European Community in 1972 are what have made it into the "Celtic tiger" whose rate of economic growth is the highest in the Euro zone. An Irish No to Europe again will cut off this process and isolate it, say supporters of the treaty.
Ahern stresses that all the political parties in Ireland - including those that have placed themselves in the opposition camp - support the idea of enlarging the EU. "Therefore, even the rejection of the Nice Treaty the first time around cannot be interpreted as a rejection of enlargement." Some believe that behind this key sentence hides a plot aimed at allowing the prime minister to get out of the dead end that will be created if the treaty is rejected a second time.
Despite the Commission's denials, anyone familiar with the ins and outs of European politics knows that in Brussels they are already rolling out what in European jargon is called "Plan B," that is, creative solutions that will allow the bypassing of a repeated negative vote by a rambunctious Irish nation.
Wondrous are the ways of European democracy, some will say. Others will ask what kind of democracy allows four million people to determine the fate of nearly half a billion, among them about 100 million who have known only the eastern side of the Iron Curtain and are longing for the fall of the last brick in the Berlin Wall.
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