Lisbon or Bust: Is Ireland on Brink of Rejecting EU Treaty?

By Siobhán Dowling

With two weeks to go until the Lisbon Treaty referendum, Irish voters are slowly making their minds up on how to vote. Worryingly for Brussels it is the 'No' campaign that is steadily gaining support, as it plays on fears relating to neutrality, taxation and abortion.

Irish voters are still unsure how the Lisbon Treaty will benefit them.
AFP

Irish voters are still unsure how the Lisbon Treaty will benefit them.

When their entry Dustin the Turkey crashed out of the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest last week, some in Ireland could have been forgiven for thinking it was final proof that their country was losing influence in Europe.

Opposition leader Enda Kenny looked on the bright side, saying Dustin may have been "gobbled up" by the opposition but Ireland just needed to vote 'Yes' to the Lisbon Treaty to ensure it had a presence at the heart of Europe. The question now is whether Irish voters are quite so enthusiastic for Europe or are on the verge of giving the EU Reform Treaty nul points in two weeks time.

The future of the European Union now hangs on how the voters in this small country on the far western edge of Europe vote on June 12. And with less than two weeks to go to polling day, the referendum debate has been hijacked by issues that have little to do with the Lisbon Treaty. While many have accused the campaign against the treaty of being aggressive, populist and misleading, the reality is that it has also been pretty successful.

The latest opinion poll has the 'Yes' camp inching ahead, but only a bit. A poll published in Ireland's Sunday Business Post showed that 41 percent were now planning to vote for the treaty, up 3 points from the previous poll. However, the 'No' side had seen a bigger increase, jumping 5 percent to 33 percent. With a full quarter of the electorate undecided, the spectre of a repeat of France and the Netherlands' rejection of the European Constitution in 2005 is looming.

In the end the Lisbon Treaty, which replaced that constitution and which is designed to make the workings of the EU more efficient and coherent, could fall victim to the prevailing economic uncertainty that has now begun to touch Ireland.

The Irish "Celtic Tiger" is losing its teeth as the global financial crisis begins to eat away at job security and leaves many people shouldering the burden of huge mortgages and worrying about their financial future. In addition Irish farmers are riled at EU plans to open up Europe markets to global trade, so much so that many farmers are threatening to reject Lisbon.

No More Checks from Brussels

Ireland, the only country that is legally required to hold a referendum on the treaty has long been regarded as one of the main beneficiaries of EU membership. For years hand outs from Brussels helped Ireland build up its infrastructure. This combined with high investment in education and Ireland's attractiveness to American companies as a low-tax, English-speaking base paved the way for the economic boom that lasted from the mid-1990s until recently.

But the checks are no longer coming from Europe and Ireland's love affair with the EU may have waned. After all this is the country that rejected the Nice Treaty, the agreement that essentially paved the way for enlargement back in 2001. The referendum had to be held a second time before the treaty passed. "That showed a lack of respect for the will of the people," says Peadar Ó Broin of the Dublin based Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), a think tank. It seemed to many a "cynical rejection of democracy."

This time around many issues are muddying the waters. From Ireland's political neutrality, to its ban on abortion, to its low corporate tax rates, the 'No' campaign seems to have successfully focused on what Ireland might lose, while the pro-Europe campaign has found it more difficult to argue what is specifically to be gained from the treaty.

The only mainstream political party to oppose the treaty, Sinn Féin, has been raising fears that Lisbon could somehow open the door to tax harmonization, forcing Ireland to give up its low corporate tax rate that has lured so many foreign companies to the country. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was forced to rush to Dublin in April on a mission to convince voters that Ireland would still have a veto on tax issues.

"Now is the time to play on the fears of a vulnerable electorate," says Ó Broin of the IIEA. He points to the prevailing fears of an economic slowdown in Ireland. "There is a negative atmosphere now that the boom is over. The Celtic Tiger is gone," and people don't want to do anything that will change the status quo.

Brendan Butler of the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the 'No' side is casting doubts with "red herrings and myths." "The issues are quite murky. People can't really get a clear sense of what the treaty is about."

Butler points to the example of pamphlets that claimed that Brussels would be able to decide how many children people can have or the fear that abortion would be made legal. Abortion is banned in this predominantly Catholic country, except in cases where the mother's life is in danger. Ireland was given a guarantee way back in 1991 when it signed the Maastricht Treaty that this ban would be secure. That didn’t stop a Catholic newspaper recently featuring an ad pleading for devout voters to reject the treaty on the grounds that it would "create a new European identity based on radical secularism and atheistic philosophies."

On Thursday Ireland's bishops tried to quell these fears and condemned those introducing "extraneous factors" into the debate. Archbishop of Dublin Dr. Diarmuid Martin told reporters: "I do not believe that this treaty changes the current position" on abortion. He also called on the country's political community to show "stronger leadership," and to explain and ensure that citizens have enough knowledge to help them decide "in favor of the common good of Europe."

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