Future of Europe once again in Irish hands

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The European Union’s hopes of greater global clout rest for a second and decisive time on Irish voters today (2 October) in a referendum on the EU’s reform treaty that risks plunging the bloc into crisis if Ireland gives another ‘no’ vote.

Brussels is counting on Ireland to ratify the Lisbon Treaty after the country, accounting for less than 1% of the Union’s near half a billion population, held up the reform charter’s introduction in a shock ‘no’ vote last year. 

Opinion polls suggest this time around Ireland will pass the treaty after securing concessions from Brussels and amid fears a second dismissal would isolate the country at a time of severe recession but there are fears anti-government sentiment could make the result tight. 

“I think it will be a simple reversal of the last vote, so 53% ‘yes’, 47% ‘no’ on roughly the same turnout,” said Hugo Brady, a political analyst at the Centre for European Reform think-tank and a native of Ireland. 

A second rejection would severely delay EU integration and further enlargement as well as weaken the euro currency and open the possibility of a two-tier Europe. 

The vote has just as wide-ranging implications for Ireland with analysts warning a second dismissal could sink the country’s reputation, losing it valuable goodwill from overseas investors, upon whom it relies to fund a ballooning budget deficit. 

Economists polled by Reuters estimated on a median basis that the spread between Irish and German 10-year debt would increase by 50 points if the treaty was rejected. 

For Prime Minister Brian Cowen, whose leadership has been wounded since the electorate first shunned Lisbon five weeks into his term, another thumbs-down could force him to resign and rattle the already shaky centre-left coalition. 

Prague steals the show 

The Lisbon Treaty, which is designed to speed-up decision-making in the EU and give it a long-term president and a stronger foreign policy chief, needs to be ratified by all 27 member states in order to take effect. 

An Irish thumbs-up would put pressure on Eurosceptic presidents in Poland and the Czech Republic to follow other EU leaders by signing it into law. 

President Lech Kaczynski of Poland has said he will ratify the charter if Ireland votes ‘yes’ but President Václav Klaus of the Czech Republic is likely to stall his approval after 17 senators filed a constitutional complaint against the treaty. 

If the Constitutional Court rejects the latest complaint before a British parliamentary election, which could see the opposition Conservative Party sweep to power and hold a referendum on the treaty, likely sinking it, then Klaus may be forced to sign it into law – marking the final piece in the ratification puzzle. 

“Saturday evening we will be looking at a different EU because most people will calculate that Klaus will sign and therefore the treaty will enter into force, like lightning in EU terms, from January 2010,” said Brady. 

And Ireland, after months under the spotlight, would bask in the glow of European approval, side-stepping domestic political crisis and boosting its reputation. 

“I think that will be the day that Ireland’s economic recovery really begins,” said Brady, adding: “It hasn’t changed the fundamentals one iota but perception is reality in these cases.” 

(EutActiv with Reuters.) 

The ongoing institutional uncertainty over the Lisbon Treaty began in earnest when Irish voters rejected the text by popular referendum in June 2008 (EURACTIV 13/06/08). However, when the Irish government committed to holding a second referendum, set for 2 October 2009, after being granted a number of key concessions by EU leaders (EURACTIV 12/12/08), attention turned to the Czech Republic. 

While the Czech parliament ratified the treaty in February (EURACTIV 18/02/09), the Czech Senate repeatedly postponed its final vote, mainly due to the issue being linked to the controversial US missile defence shield (EURACTIV 25/02/09). 

Divisions in the Civic Democratic party (ODS) over the treaty were deep enough to influence the collapse of the Czech government, a cause of significant embarrassment for the country, which held the rotating EU presidency in the first half of the year. 

The Lisbon Treaty's opponents among Czech senators first turned to the Constitutional Court in 2008. Last November, the Court said it did not find the treaty inconsistent with the Czech constitutional order. On 6 May, the Czech upper house approved the Lisbon Treaty by large majority, clearing the path for the treaty's final ratification in the Czech Republic. 

But in another twist in the tale, a group of senators again questioned the constitutionality of the Lisbon Treaty (see EURACTIV 24/08/09). The Constitutional Court must now decide whether to agree to launch an appeal procedure. 

  • 3 Oct.: Official results of the Irish referendum to be announced.
  • 29-30 Oct.: EU summit in Brussels would discuss commissioner appointments and top jobs under the Lisbon Treaty; the mandate of the present Commission to be extended until the end of the year;
  • Before the end of the year, the Czech Republic and Poland would be expected, as they have promised at the June EU summit, to complete the ratification process, with their presidents signing the parliamentary ratification.
  • By 1 Jan. 2010: Lisbon Treaty would enter into force.

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