Last week's rejection by the Irish electorate of the European Union's Nice treaty - an agreement which gives a blueprint for the union's enlargement eastward - has thrown doubt on the 15-member bloc's plans for expansion.
A June 8 referendum held in the Irish Republic resulted in an unexpected rejection of the treaty's ratification. Signed in Nice at the end of last year, the agreement won the support of voters in only two of Ireland's 41 constituencies, with the overall vote swinging 54%-46% against the treaty.
Despite a promise from French President Jacques Chirac June 11 that the Nice treaty would be enforced regardless of the Irish vote, many senior EU figures have admitted that hopes entertained by central European states (including Slovakia) of entering the union within the next few years had been dealt a serious blow.
"[With this referendum result] we are risking a delay in the enlargement process. The results of the referendum are a step backward for expansion," said Goran Persson, prime minister of Sweden, which is currently heading the rotating union presidency and has committed to pushing forward the EU's enlargement.
Invited to begin negotiations on entry in late 1999 - two years behind neighbouring Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic - Slovakia has so far closed 17 of 29 chapters in a pre-accession legislation harmonisation document, the acquis communautaire, putting the country behind only Hungary among central European countries in terms of chapters closed.
But after the Irish referendum result became clear, Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said it was "bad news for Europe".
"We are disappointed that the Irish government was unable to persuade its citizens of the significance of the Nice agreement," he said in a statement. "We expected the Irish government to take all necessary steps toward strengthening solidarity with central European countries in anticipation of their EU accession. Without the institutional reforms which the Nice agreement assumes, it will not be possible for the EU to accept all present candidate countries."
Other political leaders and chief negotiators from EU applicant member states insisted that the enlargement process had not been damaged. "The negative result of the referendum in Ireland should not harm such an important issue as EU enlargement," said Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, chief EU negotiator for Poland. "There must be a solution."
Slovak EU experts warned that the referendum result was evidence of general reluctance towards EU enlargement among the public in EU member states, not a specific rejection of the principles of the Nice treaty.
"The Irish referendum result is something that could delay the implementation of the Nice treaty, and through that, the enlargement of the union," said Vladimír Bilčík of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association think tank. "But what is important is the fact that a treaty that does not fundamentally change the workings of the EU was rejected by the people of an EU member state," he added, explaining that this was a sign of fears over expansion.
While many observers in Ireland have said that questions over future EU funding and Ireland's possible participation in an EU defence force had led to the 'no' vote, the Nice treaty itself does not explicitly affect the funding or defence forces.
Some members of the EU, such as Ireland, Spain, and Italy, have expressed fears that their poorest regions will lose important funding from Brussels once new states in central and eastern Europe are admitted. Ireland in particular has gained considerably from the financial help of the EU, using funds from Brussels to make improvements in its general infrastructure, and to build up its industrial and corporate sectors.
Among other things, the Nice treaty alters the EU's decision-making procedures, reducing the scope of national vetoes, and increasing the range of questions decided by qualified majority voting. It also re-allocates voting strengths in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers. These changes combined have led to fears that smaller countries will have little control over where EC money will be allocated.
Despite the apparent threat to EU enlargement and Slovak accession hopes, there could be another referendum in Ireland, much as there was in Denmark after Copenhagen rejected the EU's Maastricht treaty on a single European economic zone in 1992.
EU heads have also been keen to stress that the enlargement process will move ahead as planned, potentially admitting new members in 2004, even if it has faltered in the wake of the referendum.
"The [Irish] rejection of the Nice Treaty is naturally disappointing, but I am confident that the EU will be able to overcome this difficulty," France's Chirac said. "Our objective remains to bring the treaty into force before the end of 2002, which is necessary in order to proceed with enlargement."
The statement echoed earlier words of reassurance to aspiring member states, expressed in a statement from European Commission President Romano Prodi and Swedish PM Persson June 8.
"The member states and the commission will pursue enlargement negotiations with undiminished vigour and determination, in line with our firm commitment given to applicant countries," they said.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern said he was "dismayed" by the referendum, especially in the light of the 59% national support which has been polled for EU enlargement in the republic.
"I expect that the Irish government will find a way to re-judge the Nice agreement," said Slovak chief negotiator for EU entry Ján Figeľ.