- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

Irish voters go to the polls Thursday after an intense campaign that could determine the fate of the European Union’s ambitious blueprint to play a larger role on the world’s stage.

Ireland is the only EU country that will hold a popular referendum on the proposed Lisbon Treaty, with the latest polls putting the “Yes” and “No” camps in a dead heat with about a third of Irish voters still undecided. All 27 EU countries must approve the reform package for it to be adopted.

“There are huge consequences riding on this vote,” said Simon Serfaty, a European specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who joked that the Irish poll is a far bigger issue for EU leaders than this week’s summit with President Bush.

“This will create all kinds of complications for the EU if it is rejected,” he added.

The Lisbon Treaty is a slightly pared down version of the EU “constitution” rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums three years ago. Like the constitution, the new reform package would streamline the EU’s creaky bureaucracy, create a more powerful chief executive and foreign minister, and eliminate the ability of individual countries to veto EU decisions in a wide range of policy areas.

EU leaders hope to have the new treaty in place by the end of the year. The Finnish and Estonian parliaments Wednesday approved the treaty, leaving 10 of the EU’s 27 nations still to act.

The drive for a more efficient, powerful EU ground to a halt with the 2005 rejection of the constitution. EU President Jose Manuel Barroso has warned there is “no Plan B” if the Irish “No” vote wins Thursday.

But despite the support of Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and the three largest political parties, Irish analysts say the anti-EU forces have been gaining in the waning days of the debate.

Opponents argue the reform package will diminish the clout of small states like Ireland, take away the country’s ability to block unpopular EU mandates, and tie Irish farm, security and social policies to the dictates of bureaucrats in Brussels.

Declan Ganley, a wealthy Irish businessman who has helped bankroll a leading “No” lobby, said Monday he had purchased a one-way ticket to Belgium for Mr. Cowen immediately after the vote, so he can return to the EU headquarters to negotiate a better deal.

Treaty supporters scoff at the idea that Ireland can negotiate a better deal, and argue that Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economy has boomed in recent decades because of its EU ties.

The stakes in the Irish vote are particularly high for France, which has large ambitions for the EU on energy, security and other issues, and which takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency July 1. French backing for an enhanced EU defense force has been a point of controversy in Ireland, which has a long tradition of military neutrality, according to Julien Vaisse of the Brookings Institution.

France would be the “first victim” of an Irish rejection, the Parisian daily Le Monde wrote.

But Irish analysts say French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner may have hurt the “Yes” cause with some pointed lobbying efforts this week.

The Irish would be “penalizing themselves” if they blocked the treaty, Mr. Kouchner warned Monday. “It would be very, very, very awkward for right-thinking people if we could not rely on the Irish who have themselves relied very greatly on European money.”

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