16th Sep 2019

EU holds breath ahead of Irish treaty referendum

  • Irish citizens will vote on the EU treaty on Thursday, 12 June (Photo: EUobserver)

All eyes are on Ireland this week as the European Union awaits the result of the country's EU treaty referendum on Thursday with a mixture of relief that the day has finally come around and fear that it may bring a "no" vote.

For much of the past half year, Ireland's lonely referendum route – it is the only one of the 27 member states to undergo the more unpredictable public poll rather than parliamentary ratification – has been the main topic of conversation in Brussels.

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But while discussion in the EU capital has been feverish, actual political activity has slowed appreciably as the bloc's institutions and its officials have sought not to upset the Irish electorate with controversial new announcements. "Only after the Irish referendum" has been the familiar if unofficial refrain among EU diplomats.

To its supporters, the Lisbon treaty will make the EU more democratic, ease decision-making and give the bloc a chance to strengthen its weight on the international stage. To its detractors, the document takes away too much power from individual states and is much more than the simple tidying up exercise often portrayed by the "yes" camp.

Where both sides agree is that an Irish "no" is set to scupper ratification across the bloc, with 12 member states, including Ireland, still to complete the process. All countries have to ratify the treaty for it to come into force.

Latest polls

The latest poll results have done little to ease the nerves of those hoping for a "yes" vote. An Irish Times survey published Friday (6 June) showed a 17-point jump for the "no" side, putting it five percentage points ahead. Meanwhile, a poll for the Sunday Business Post on 8 June put the pro-treaty camp in the lead, but only just - 42 percent to 39 percent.

It is three years since EU founding members France and the Netherlands caused a huge upset in Europe when one after the other rejected the proposed European Constitution.

For two years after the event, Europe retreated from the institutional reform question, indulged in some political soul-searching and tried to alter its core message into something more citizen-friendly.

Only with a change of leadership in France and Germany was the treaty question once more put back on the table.

What emerged after bitter wrangling was a messy compromise document that maintained most of the innovations of the constitution but removed the overtly state-like elements such as a mention of the European flag and anthem.

With an Irish "no" becoming an increasingly plausible possibility - memories remain of the country's rejection of the Nice Treaty in 2001 - there is a general feeling that the political landscape has changed this time round.

An uncertain route

Over the weekend, prime minister Brian Cowen said a treaty rejection would take Ireland down "down a new and more uncertain route".

The options in case of a rejection could be a renegotiation of the treaty (but there is little appetite in national capitals to once more tackle the institutional question); giving Ireland some more opt-outs and putting the document to vote again (an option which is politically difficult); or carrying on with the current treaties.

Every one denies there is a political Plan B should the Irish vote "no" on Thursday.

Some senior MEPs in the European Parliament have spoken of the country having to consider its membership of the EU, while other diplomats have suggested Dublin will pay in other ways, such as having less influence in Brussels.

Looking at the bigger picture, some diplomats suggest it will be a catastrophe for Europe, pushing it towards a situation where some member states choose to forge ahead with further integration.

Still others, however, suggest that Europe regularly lurches from one crisis to another and will, as in the past, muddle through.

Whatever the outcome, EU leaders will meet in Brussels for their annual summer summit one week later, where they can either push ahead with plans for implementing the treaty or publicly consider the consequences and weigh up the political options for the future.

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