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Cyprus Internet Directory [ Ireland votes, Europe waits ]

Ireland votes, Europe waits

ON THURSDAY, Irish voters will vote on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, the instrument designed to improve the efficiency and legitimacy of the now 27-member bloc. Ireland is the only country to put the Treaty to a referendum – all the other member states have chosen to ratify the Treaty by parliamentary means – and everything indicates that the result will be close.

For Prime Minister Brian Cowen’s new government, the risk is that a ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty would cripple his administration in its infancy. For the EU, Irish rejection of the Treaty would probably trigger a lengthy period of instability, and perhaps even an end to the European integration process as it is now constituted.

In 2001, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty, which threw the EU into a protracted period of crisis and introspection, which ended only with agreement on the so-called Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Almost immediately, however, French and Dutch voters rejected that Treaty, bringing the negotiations back to square one. Now, after a lengthy and difficult period of reflection and bargaining, those efforts may be in jeopardy again.

The ‘No’ campaign has been vigorous, comprising a motley crew of ageing Marxists, anti-globalisation protesters, traditional eurosceptics, and obsessive “sovereigntists.” They have sought to capitalise on the vacuum of knowledge in Ireland regarding EU affairs and the ‘Yes’ side’s relative lateness to mobilise.

Voters have been subjected to a barrage of outlandish claims: the Treaty would supposedly introduce abortion into Ireland (it is outlawed under Ireland’s constitution), abolish Ireland’s low corporate-tax rate, and introduce a European army that would soon be sending Irish boys home from distant battlefields in body bags. Even Ireland’s dismal performance at the recent Eurovision Song Contest has been used to bolster the message: “They didn’t vote for us; why should we vote for them?”

Though these claims are easily discredited, the ‘Yes’ side has been unable to provide voters with sufficient reasons to vote for the Treaty. If that wasn’t enough, the ‘No’ side has also been able to associate the EU with rising fuel and food prices as the campaign draws to a close.

Two factors that are likely to decide the referendum’s outcome can be singled out: turnout and how the farming community votes. Opinion polls currently show the ‘Yes’ side leading by two to one (35% to 18%). But there is little comfort in these figures for pro-Europeans: polls prior to the failed referendum on the Nice treaty in 2001 demonstrated an even larger ‘Yes’ majority at the same stage. Now as then, ‘No’ voters seem more committed. The percentage of ‘Don’t knows’ remains high, at about 47%, so there is everything to play for in the campaign’s final days.

The crucial issue will be turnout. In 2001 the ‘Yes’ side lost because it failed to convince enough voters to turn out – almost two thirds of the electorate failed to vote. In 2002, a second referendum was held which reversed the result and saw the ‘Yes’ side triumph. A good part of the explanation for this turnaround was the fact that the government managed to convince enough voters to move from abstention to the ‘Yes’ camp (though the turnout still failed to reach 50%). All of this suggests that the higher the turnout the greater the likelihood of a ‘Yes’ win.

For Irish farmers the campaign has delivered a golden opportunity to engage in a tactical assault on Brussels. They have sought to link the Treaty to the ongoing Doha Round of World Trade Organisation talks. Peter Mandelson, the EU’s trade commissioner, has been routinely presented as public enemy number one with his proposals to reduce some agricultural tariffs by up to 70%.

Farming organisations threaten to withhold support for the Treaty unless the government threatens to veto Mandelson’s proposals. Although the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) has belatedly urged its 85,000 members to support the Treaty, opinion polls show farmers are opposed to Lisbon by a two to one majority. Their votes could prove crucial in a tight contest.

From the outside looking in it seems almost perverse that Irish voters might reject the Lisbon Treaty. After all Ireland has benefited more than other state from the European integration process, garnering almost €60 billion in EU subsidies during 35 years of membership. But in a context where the EU remains too remote from citizens and where apathy and confusion define the referendum campaign, the ‘No’ side has cleverly packaged its message of Europe as an existential threat to Irish jobs, investment and sovereignty. Ireland, long one of the EU’s bright spots, will be a source of great anxiety in the days to come.

Dr. John O’ Brennan is lecturer in European Politics and Society within the Department of Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). He is the author of a number of books on European integration.

© Project Syndicate, 2008

(Source: Cyprus Mail)

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