Nailbiting as the Irish Prepare for Lisbon Vote Will Undecided Voters Determine EU's Fate?
Europeans are spellbound as they look to Dublin in the run-up to a second referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon and the future of the European Union on Friday. Many believe a "yes" vote will come, but the "no" camp is still formidable and many voters remain undecided.
Andrew Byrne had planned to move to Belgium to pursue a masters degree. Suddenly, though, it became clear to him that he had something more important to do first -- he needed to stay and protect his country from the catastrophe of isolation.
"This decision is too important to leave it to the politicians." says Byrne, 24. So he took a year off and in December founded Generation Yes. It's an initiative comprised of young people, independent of any political or business interests, who are promoting the European Union. Byrne wants to convince his fellow Irish to vote "yes" on Oct. 2 when the country goes to the polls for a repeat of the failed 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty, a successor to the 2005 failed attempt at adopting a European Constitution, is meant to streamline EU decision-making and establish the new position of a president who will represent the EU on the international stage.
Byrne isn't alone. Dozens of volunteers are helping him -- working without pay, nearly around the clock. Not a single volunteer is older than 27. They explain the treaty over the Internet, Facebook and through Twitter. And every day they take their message to the streets, handing out informational brochures about what they see as a "fateful vote." "Talking to people is the most effective way of winning somebody's vote," Byrne explains.
One of his activists previously spent a year working for Amnesty International. Another cared for former child soldiers in Liberia, and one woman was on Barack Obama's campaign team. For these young people, the EU and its seat in Brussels are synonymous with a new start and participation in the modern world, rather that bureaucracy and a mania for regulations.
The position they are representing is a difficult one in Ireland, especially within their own age group. Opposition to the Lisbon Treaty is greater among the country's young voters than in any other segment of the population.
An Unpredictable Outcome
Just days away from the second referendum, its outcome is still unpredictable. The "yes" side led by a slight margin in the most recent polls, but there's still a large number of undecided voters. Many will first make up their minds when the moment of truth arrives.
At that time, few will have read the 389-page treaty, meaning the substance of the treaty isn't as important as what voters perceive it to be. They have to sift through a list of claims from the "no" camp that are not true, such as complaints that the convoluted document contains traces of "militarism." Or that the EU wants to reduce the minimum wage to 1.84 ($2.70) per hour, raise taxes, strip the Irish Parliament of its power, give jobs away to foreigners and overturn the country's abortion ban.
The stakes are high. If Ireland's 3 million voters say "yes," then the reform treaty will soon go into effect for all of the EU's 500 million citizens. The parliaments of the other 26 member nations have already ratified it. With the treaty's reforms, the EU would get not only a new permanent position of President of the European Council to represent the community, but also a stronger parliament. A veto from one member country would then become the exception, making the EU as a whole more powerful.
But if the Irish were to vote "no" again, it will throw the EU into another crisis. The body would then have little choice but to create a two-track Europe, and Ireland would likely be shut out of the plan. The home of U2 and Guinness could suddenly become a second class citizen within Europe. "Ireland will be severely damaged if they vote no," says Michael Marsh a political scientist at Dublin's Trinity College.
The Emerald Isle is a schizophrenic place these days. Slogans like "No to Lisbon" and "No Means No" are plastered on the walls of buildings. Yet signs by the entrance ramps to the country's new highways serve as reminders that these stretches were funded with help from the EU. The small nation has received a net amount of more than 40 billion ($58.5 billion) in subsidies so far in the 37 years of its EU membership. The period has been the best so far in Ireland's history.
Two decisive aspects have changed since the first Irish referendum. The EU Council has made improvements to the treaty, now guaranteeing that Ireland can maintain its future neutrality, that it won't have to introduce gay marriage and that it will retain a permanent EU commissioner. Those factors ought to placate some opponents.
From 'Celtic Tiger' to 'Timid Puss'
The country's economic situation has also fundamentally changed. Once dubbed the "Celtic tiger," Ireland has become nothing more than a "timid puss," in the words of Britain's Guardian. In recent months, it has gone from economic powerhouse to a country that was threatened with national bankruptcy. The Irish have the euro and the support of the European Central Bank to thank for keeping the system from collapsing as it did in Iceland.
The deep depression can be seen everywhere, further exacerbated by self-made problems. Megalomaniac building tycoons speculated their way to ruin with absurdly overpriced projects. A drive through Ireland's green hills now reveals a countryside dotted with the skeletons of half-finished, slowly rotting shopping malls. Banks' balance sheets are looking bleak as well.
Up until now, Ireland has benefited from its role as an English-speaking country that was also part of Europe's internal market. EU billions, highly-educated workers and low tax rates for businesses drew hundreds of American companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Dell, as well as Google, Pfizer and Merck. If a "no to Lisbon" causes Ireland to be left outside the EU core, these companies will pack up and leave, along with the hundreds of thousands of jobs they create.
'Distrust Towards Traditional Authority'
Ireland's elite is currently living in fear ahead of the Oct. 2 election. A "no" vote would be suicide and spell "economic ruin," in the words of former European Parliament President Pat Cox, who is Irish.
Yet "there is a lot of distrust towards traditional authority," says Byrne, the young activist. Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen's government has made the worst showing imaginable during the economic crisis. Support for him is down to only 11 percent. Many Irish will vote "no" just to score one against their prime minister, figuring whatever Cowen wants must be the wrong choice.
A coalition of the most varied partners is urging the Irish people to make a clear distinction between the referendum and the current government. All political parties represented in the Irish parliament -- aside from the nationalist Sinn Fein -- support the reform treaty. The major unions have also given it their backing. The head of chipmaker Intel's Irish operation has also begged the country to vote "yes." For his party, Michael O'Leary, the blunt-speaking CEO of budget airline Ryanair, Lisbon opponents are nothing but "unemployable fucking headbangers."
Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney found gentler words to express his sentiments. With a "no" vote, he warned, the Irish people "will have lost ourselves in the modern world," adding that "the reasons for voting 'no' are manufactured, on the whole." Even the Irish Bishops Conference has announced that the treaty in no way conflicts with Catholic ethics and that there is no need to fear that Ireland's abortion ban will be loosened. Despite such voices of support, though, the "no" camp remains well-populated.
But Richard Sinnott, a political scientist at Dublin's University College, expects the Irish will nevertheless vote "yes" in Friday's referendum. The country similarly rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001, only to then accept it one year later. The "no" the first time around is really a cunning and calculated move, he says. No other tactic would have given the tiny country as much negotiating leverage with Brussels.
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein.