- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

DUBLIN — The party once led by the current European Union ambassador to Washington is claiming that the U.S. is actively opposing European integration, posing a potential embarrassment as Prime Minister Bertie Ahern prepares to address a joint session of Congress today.

Lucinda Creighton, a spokeswoman for Ireland’s largest opposition party, Fine Gael, says in a Web posting that “U.S. foreign policy has traditionally been opposed to EU integration.”

“The U.S. supports the EU as an economic bloc but nothing more. The idea of a politically strong EU, acting as a check or counterbalance on the U.S. does not sit well with our trans-Atlantic friends,” says the spokeswoman, a member of Ireland’s Parliament.

She also claims in the posting that the U.S. consistently opposes NATO expansion.

Fine Gael last held power from 1994 to 1997, under the current EU ambassador to Washington, John Bruton. Contacted yesterday by The Washington Times, Mr. Bruton declined to comment on Irish political affairs.

A State Department official noted yesterday that President Bush has strongly supported EU and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe in recent years, and has pushed strongly for a NATO invitation for former Soviet states Georgia and Ukraine at the alliance’s Bucharest summit earlier this month.

“I will encourage our European partners to increase their defense investments to support both NATO and EU operations,” Mr. Bush said prior to the summit.

U.S. Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland, in a widely discussed February speech in Paris, said:

“Europe needs a place where it can act independently, and we need a Europe that is able and willing to do so in defense of our common interests,” she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Ahern’s government would not comment on Ms. Creighton’s remarks.

“We will not be drawn into comments on what other parties are saying,” the spokesman said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for attribution.

Released Friday, the statement comes as Ireland faces a popular vote on the EU’s proposed Lisbon treaty, which would increase political integration of the 27-nation bloc and create the post of EU president.

Ireland is the sole EU member state holding a referendum on the treaty, with other nations planning to hold ratification votes in their parliaments.

Mr. Ahern said that a “no” vote by Ireland would be “a disaster for the country,” after an opinion survey published Sunday showed pro-treaty sentiment with a narrowing three-point lead. Thirty-four percent of those polled were undecided on how they will vote in the June 12 plebiscite.

The Fine Gael statement targets two prominent Irish businessmen, who are funding a nationwide campaign for a “no” vote, claiming they represent “U.S. strategic interests.”

“The businesses of both Ulick McEvaddy and Declan Ganley are heavily dependent on contracts from the State Department, the Pentagon and U.S. government agencies.

“I believe that these men are a lot less concerned about Irish sovereignty and the wording of the Lisbon treaty than they are about the potential hit to their own personal business interests,” Ms. Creighton writes in the Web posting.

The businessmen lead a campaign group called Libertas, which is campaigning against the treaty’s ratification.

“The contents of that statement are utterly without any foundation in fact, and represent a naked attempt to win a … vote by stirring a nasty anti-American sentiment,” a Libertas spokesperson told The Washington Times.

Fine Gael is the main opposition party in Ireland’s legislature, and has been the traditional rival to the incumbent Mr. Ahern’s Fianna Fail, with both parties conventionally depicted as “center-right.”

In the 2007 parliamentary election, Fine Gael won 51 seats against Fianna Fail’s 77, out of a total of 166, and narrowly failed in forming a coalition government with other parties.

Fine Gael’s anti-American statement might come as a surprise to some observers, but it could also be an attempt to test the water on any growth of disaffection with the U.S. in Ireland.

However, the depth of anti-Americanism in Ireland — a country with close historical and cultural ties to the U.S., where between 40 million and 70 million people claim Irish ancestry — is difficult to assess.

A British Council poll on trans-Atlantic relations was conducted in seven European countries, Canada and the United States from Jan. 8 to 25, 2008.

Its findings showed that 48 percent of Irish polled had a positive view of the U.S. in world affairs, with 46 percent seeing the U.S. as a malign influence. The European average was 44 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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