Europe holds breath ahead of Friday 13th

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As latest polls reveal the anti-Lisbon Treaty camp in Ireland have taken the lead, the superstitious date of Friday 13 June 2008, when the results of the referendum will be officially announced, could see Europe thrown into an existential crisis.

Opposition to the EU Treaty has more than doubled over the last week, increasing from 17% to 35% over the past three weeks, according to a TNS/MRBI poll published in the Irish Times on 5 June. 

Support from campaigners in favour of the Treaty crafted to replace the defunct EU Constitution (which was rejected by French and Dutch voters three years ago) has dropped five percentage points, down to 30% over the same period. 

The number of undecided voters now stands at 28% while 7% of Irish citizens said they would not be voting in the 12 June referendum. 

Ireland is the only EU country to require ratification of the Lisbon Treaty through a nationwide referendum – a procedure now considered too risky by many countries, including the UK, despite earlier promises to hold a public consultation on the former Constitution. 

To garner support from the large number of undecided voters, the government of Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen launched a national campaign in favour of the treaty’s approval on 13 May. 

In the meantime, the EU institutions also put on hold any discussions on sensitive issues such as taxation, agricultural policy reform or defence, for fear that they could impact negatively on Irish voters in the same way that the Bolkestein directive on services influenced French and Dutch voters in the Constitution referendum in 2005. 

The Financial Times writes ironically today that ahead of the Irish referendum, the Commission is picking up on “safe” subjects, such as the endangered habitat of hamsters in Alsace. As if looking to confirm this interpretation, the Commission has also issued a strongly worded text expressing EU support for the protection of whales (see press releases). 

EU leaders continually insist there is no plan B in the case of an Irish ‘no’ vote. But the Czech government has already issued a programme for when it takes over the EU Presidency in the first half of 2009 in two versions: one in case the Lisbon Treaty is ratified and one in case it is rejected (EURACTIV 03/06/08)

On 4 June, the Dutch Parliament voted in favour of the Lisbon Treaty by large majority. After the rejection of the EU Constitution by nearly 62% of the population in the 2005 referendum, the Netherlands’ major political parties decided that a referendum was “unnecessary” this time around (EURACTIV 24/09/07).

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said he will accept responsibility for the outcome of the referendum, appealing to voters not to put the economy at risk, in an interview for the Irish Independent on 6 June. "A 'no' vote, when it seems to me we need to work with others, puts all that at risk. It doesn't eliminate our membership of the Union. But the Union won't be modernising the way it has to to be a competitive regional economy," he said. 

Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin, quoted by Ireland.com, said the latest poll results show that there is still a lot of confusion among voters, which he attributed to discussions on issues that are not covered in the treaty. 

Speaking for the 'no' side, Sinn Féin Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald said the latest poll findings show that as voters get involved in the public discussions on Lisbon, more believe that a better deal for Ireland in Europe is achievable. "Clearly people are asking the question why we should support a deal which is so obviously not in the interests of Ireland or the European Union. To date the government has yet to give a single convincing reason why people should support the Lisbon Treaty," McDonald said.

Ireland is the only EU country to require ratification of the Lisbon Treaty through a nationwide referendum. This is due to a 1987 ruling by its Supreme Court which stipulates that significant changes to the European Union treaties require an amendment to the Irish Constitution (which is always done by means of a referendum) before being ratified by the State. 

In all other EU members, it is the parliaments which deal with ratification, where no major obstacles are expected, except perhaps in the UK. Indeed, although the ratification procedure in Parliament is advancing there, Tory millionaire Stuart Wheeler has won the right to open a High Court review into whether the UK Government should hold a referendum on the Treaty following its earlier promise to hold one on the since-defunct EU Constitution. The legal dispute will be heard by the Court on 9-10 June, just ahead of the Irish referendum. 

  • June 19-20: European Council would become a 'crisis Council' if Ireland votes 'no'.

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