Voters In Ireland Could Decide The EU's Fate

Irish political poster i i

hide captionA campaign poster urges Irish voters to reject the Lisbon Treaty. Opponents say the treaty would give the European Union too much power.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Irish political poster

A campaign poster urges Irish voters to reject the Lisbon Treaty. Opponents say the treaty would give the European Union too much power.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Voters in Ireland are deciding the future shape of the European Union in a referendum that has been as emotionally charged as the U.S. debate over health care reform.

If Irish voters Friday reject the referendum on the 2007 EU treaty and its reforms, it will be rendered void for lack of unanimous ratification. The so-called Lisbon Treaty would lead to the appointment of an EU president.

Just last year, Irish voters rejected an earlier version of the treaty, which is aimed at streamlining the government of the 27-nation political and economic bloc.

But then, Ireland's supercharged "Celtic Tiger" economy was still going strong, and many in Ireland thought they could go it on their own.

Today, polls show that most Irish voters are likely to opt for a stronger, more cohesive European Union. Results of the vote are expected to be reported early Saturday.

From Dublin, NPR's Rob Gifford reports that both sides have used fear and emotion to make their case, with some hard-nosed opponents even comparing the potential power of the EU to that of Adolf Hitler.

But law student Dan Heydon told Gifford he supports the referendum. "I think it's good for Europe, good for Ireland. Climate change, energy security, researching clean technologies — I want to see sharing between EU states. Those are all good reforms."

The treaty calls for a stronger president who would serve for two-and-a-half years, with the ability to run for a second term. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been touted for the job.

It also would also strengthen the position of the bloc's foreign affairs and security chief, who would be supported by a revamped European diplomatic service.

Those changes could make it easier for the EU to exercise influence abroad, says Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University. "The U.S. and the world need a strong Europe, because it means we'll have a real partner," he says.

If Ireland says "yes," there will be pressure on the Czech Republic and Poland to remove legal challenges to the treaty in those countries.

Opposition to the treaty has come mainly from groups that feel that the EU is already too strong, and that members would be giving up national sovereignty to a centralized government in Brussels.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen i i

hide captionIrish Prime Minister Brian Cowen campaigns for a "yes" vote on a referendum to change the European Union. Cowen's government is unpopular because of the recession, but the referendum is expected to win approval.

Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen campaigns for a "yes" vote on a referendum to change the European Union. Cowen's government is unpopular because of the recession, but the referendum is expected to win approval.

Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Groups such as Organized Rage have urged Irish voters to reject the Lisbon Treaty a second time, saying the agreement would allow the EU to levy taxes "without representation."

Justin Vaisse, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says the 2008 referendum failed, in part, because of a "disinformation" campaign that told voters that the treaty would force Ireland to give up its treasured neutrality, to accept legalized abortion, and to allow Irish youth to be conscripted into a soon-to-be-created "European Army."

The claims were entirely false, Vaisse says, and the latest version of the referendum contains language assuring Irish voters that no such provisions would be imposed on them.

Vaisse says the assurances took some of the sting out of the campaign to reject the treaty, but he says the most important factor is that "Ireland has taken a huge hit from the recession, and realized that its destiny was intertwined with the rest of the EU."

Passage of the treaty would provide the U.S. with a more stable and reliable partner that could speak with a united voice on policy issues, Vaisse says. "Henry Kissinger used to joke, 'Who do I call if I want to call Europe?' " Vaisse says. "This would give him someone to call."

If the referendum doesn't pass, "the Lisbon Treaty will die and so will further plans to reform the EU's institutions," says Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Dale, who covered the EU for many years as a journalist in Brussels, says a "no" vote would undo efforts to restructure the bloc that began in 2001, with the creation of a European Constitution. That effort failed in 2005 when the Constitution was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands.

The Lisbon Treaty was designed to carry out the changes without having to put the issue to the same kind of constitutional referendum. It has been ratified by parliaments in 26 of the EU member countries. The reason it had to go to a referendum in Ireland is that the Irish Supreme Court declared that a vote of the people was necessary in any case that involved transferring national powers to another entity.

But Dale is not convinced by advocates who say the EU would fail if the treaty were rejected. "People compare it to a bicycle, which falls over if you stop pedaling," he says, "but that's not accurate. When a bicycle tips, you put your foot down to stop it."

Dale says he believes that if the treaty were to fail, the EU would carry on, but subgroups of its members would form tighter bonds. One unifying factor, he says, might be the use of the Euro as currency. Another might be among countries that have eliminated internal border controls.

Kupchan notes that there is a more pessimistic assessment, even if the treaty passes. "The project of European integration has been slipping backward over the past few years. There has been a discernible trend toward nationalism," he says. "It's conceivable that the institutional changes that Lisbon brings could end up being hollow."

Although he says he favors a strong Europe, Kupchan adds, "it's hard to be bullish about Europe right now. The winds are blowing in all directions."

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