Bad omens loom over Irish referendum

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Despite strong pro-European sentiment in Ireland, the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty scheduled for May or June this year should not be considered a safe bet, claims Hugo Brady in an analysis for the Centre for European Reform (CER), recalling the Irish public’s rejection of the Nice Treaty in 2001.

Brady gives four main reasons why the referendum – so far the only one on the EU Treaty certain to take place – might deliver a negative result: 

1. The public may use the poll to punish the Irish government under Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for its domestic record, with Ahern facing tough questions about his finances before an investigative tribunal. 

2. Support for the EU has fallen among the business community – traditionally strongly in favour of EU membership – amid fears that EU tax harmonisation would threaten Ireland’s low corporate tax rates. Meanwhile, a new interest group called ‘Libertas’ is running a door-to-door campaign arguing that the so-called ‘passerelle’ clause in the treaty will allow the EU to accrue radical new powers without future referendums. 

3. Unlike the euro or enlargement, the Lisbon Treaty contains no “grand project” and therefore politicians have to better articulate to their voters why it matters. If they fail, people might just stay at home.

4. The previously pro-EU consensus in the media is being weakened by the growing influence of the primarily anti-EU British tabloids, whose market share in Ireland is growing. 

A central figure in the debate will be the Irish Internal Market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, a popular former finance minister and the “embodiment of national influence in Brussels,” according to Brady. “He [McCreevy] has the authority to make a difference at pivotal moments,” he writes.

The CER analysis concludes by saying that “the stakes are high” and rejection “would thrust the treaty back to jaded national negotiators with no plan B”. 

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