Prodi warns on second rejection of Nice Treaty


THE EU: The Commission President is optimistic and feels the mood may have changed in Ireland, writes Denis Staunton.

The President of the EU Commission, Mr Romano Prodi, has warned of serious consequences for Europe if Ireland rejects the Nice Treaty a second time. He said he was unable to predict what political price, if any, Ireland would pay for failing to ratify the treaty.

"To say No would be a heavy, heavy, heavy blow. I don't deny it," he said.

Mr Prodi was speaking to The Irish Times and other European newspapers as his Commission marked the half-way stage of its five-year term.

He defended the Commission's record and claimed that he had fulfilled his promise two years ago to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality in Europe.

He described the Commission as the guarantor of the "general interest" of the EU and warned that strengthening the Commission and the European Parliament represented the only alternative to an EU run by a directoire of large member-states.

Mr Prodi said he was "not pessimistic" about the outcome of a second referendum on Nice, arguing that the climate had changed since last year in a way that could change voters' minds.

"They have had a long time to meditate. There has been a very intense internal debate. Some other problems were mixed up with the previous referendum - abortion, foreign policy and neutrality.

"I hope the referendum will concentrate on Nice. I don't want to interfere with the Irish referendum but there have been a lot of new events since last year that could make them think again," the Commission President said.

The Commission believes that a second No vote would inevitably delay the admittance of up to 10 new member-states, which is due to take place in 2004.

Mr Prodi said that any such delay would create serious difficulties for the candidate countries.

"It would be a very serious problem because now there are expectations.

"The changes made by the future member-states because of enlargement are big. Many of these changes would not have been accepted without the perspective of enlargement. I think there would be frustration because of that," Mr Prodi said.

Some EU officials, including the External Affairs Commissioner, Mr Chris Patten, have warned that Ireland could pay a political price if enlargement is delayed by a second No vote.

However, Mr Prodi declined to speculate on the nature of any such damage to Ireland's political standing.

"I've no answer for that. This is democracy. When they say Europe is going slowly it's because, happily, we are trying to build something through a completely democratic process. A referendum is a referendum and we have to accept it simply like that," he said.

The Commission President defended his recent submission to the Convention on the Future of Europe which called for sweeping new powers to be granted to the Commission.

Under his proposal, the Commission would have more influence on the shaping of national budgets and would take responsibility for the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy.

"You really think that in this house everyone was happy? Of course not. You really think I didn't think about that? Of course I did. But I am obsessed by the future of Europe," he said.

He said there was a real fear, especially in smaller member-states, that a directoire of larger states could take control of the European agenda.

"This is why it was necessary to make a coherent proposal, to give to all the member-states the idea that there is an alternative to the directoire," he said.

When asked if a more powerful Commission represented the only alternative to a directoire, he replied: yes.