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Sunday, 20 October, 2002, 20:34 GMT 21:34 UK
Ireland backs EU expansion
Mr Ahern in a referendum polling station
Another No would have been highly embarrassing for Ahern
Voters in the Republic of Ireland have endorsed a key treaty paving the way for the expansion of the European Union.

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With all ballots counted from Saturday's referendum, 62.89% of voters have backed the Nice Treaty, which they had rejected in a similar vote last year.

The possibility of a second No had raised serious concerns for the acceptance of 10 new members - mostly in Eastern Europe - in 2004.

Saturday's vote also ensured that any future moves on the Nice Treaty will be put to a parliamentary vote in Ireland and not a popular referendum.

"The truly historic enlargement of the European Union can go ahead," said Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. "We want to welcome the people of the applicant countries into the European Union with open hearts as well as open minds."

Referendum facts
Yes: 62.89%
No: 37.11%
Turnout: 48.45%
Correspondents say the result is a relief as much as a triumph for the Taoiseach. A second No vote would have proved a major embarrassment for Mr Ahern, both at home and abroad.

The result has also been hailed in the capitals of the EU and the candidate states as a key step towards reuniting Europe.

Expiry looms

Turnout in the referendum was 48.45%, up by nearly a third from the vote last year. Low voter participation was deemed a major factor in the results of that poll.

Supporters of the Nice plans had argued that expansion would boost Ireland's economy as well as increase cultural diversity in the union.

Yes and No placards in Dublin
Yes campaigners argued enlargement would boost the economy
The No camp, which includes Greens, Socialists and Sinn Fein nationalists, said the treaty would give Brussels too much control over Irish affairs.

They said Mr Ahern was acting undemocratically by seeking to reverse results he did not like with a fresh referendum, but his supporters argued that the very low turnout of the first vote meant it could not be interpreted as a clear expression of the people's will.

The number of people voting against the treaty remained constant from the last poll, but the increased turnout appears to have boosted the number of voters casting their ballot in favour of enlargement.

Relief in eastern Europe

The foreign minister of the Czech Republic, one of the 10 countries waiting to join the EU, greeted the result.

"The Irish referendum has clearly demonstrated that the EU is based on democratic decision-making and that a decision made by a small country carries weight too," said Cyril Svoboda.

"The citizens of Ireland have expressed unequivocally that the solidarity of all the EU member states is a key part of the enlargement."

The Nice treaty and the legal basis for enlargement would have expired by the end of this year if it had not been not ratified by all member states.

But EU officials warn that there is still much work to be done before the 10 candidates can become part of the Western club.

EU leaders are meeting for a summit in Brussels this week to debate one of the thorniest issues of enlargement - how to pay for the entry of so many, mainly poor, former communist states.

"We can now get on with finalising preparations for enlargement of the European Union," said European Commission President Romano Prodi in a statement released after the results were declared.

"We are closer to our goal, but not there yet," he said.

No more referendums

The amendment to the Irish constitution passed on Saturday does more than give the government the right to approve the Nice treaty.

Henceforth any moves on EU integration will be put to a parliamentary vote instead of a referendum.

The EU's other current member-states required a simple parliamentary vote to approve the treaty - a stipulation which Euro-sceptics have argued is undemocratic.

Another new point in the constitutional amendment prohibits the government joining any future common European defence force - a reflection of the Irish Republic's jealously guarded neutrality.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Denis Murray reports
"Ireland has done enormously well out of its European membership"
The BBC's Donna Larsen reports
"They're breathing a sigh of relief across Europe"
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern
"What is good for the people of Europe is good for the people of Ireland"

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20 Oct 02 | Europe
14 Oct 02 | Europe
08 Oct 02 | Europe
18 Oct 02 | Europe
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