Irish Wielding an Outsize Power in Europe
By a Wrinkle in Law, Voters Decide Fate Of E.U. Overhaul

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 13, 2008

DUBLIN, June 12 -- Ireland cast ballots Thursday on a treaty overhauling the European Union, in a referendum that by a fluke of constitutional law gives 3 million Irish voters a big say in the future lives of nearly 500 million Europeans.

For the Lisbon Treaty to go into force, all 27 E.U. nations must approve it. In 26 of those countries, the decision is up to politicians, where support is solid. Only Ireland is bound by its constitution to put it to the citizens -- and many of them are by tradition proudly contrarian. Polls taken as the vote neared showed the issue too close to call, but with the "no" vote gaining steam.

At a central Dublin polling station Thursday, Mary Flynn expressed a common Irish sentiment.

"I don't understand a good lot of it; I don't know what it does," Flynn, a 49-year-old nurse, said of the complex, 300-page treaty. Ireland "would be nothing," she acknowledged, without the billions of dollars the E.U. has given this once-poor country in the past 35 years. But she said she voted against the treaty: "If you don't know, you vote no."

The vote gives voice to the conflict between national sovereignty and cross-border cooperation that has dogged the bloc as it has grown from a six-country coal-and-steel-trading club in 1951 to today's 27-country behemoth -- 12 of the countries joined in just the past four years. E.U. governments now work closely together on trade, currency, defense, foreign policy, counterterrorism, health, agriculture and a host of other issues. E.U. bureaucrats administer tens of thousands of pages of regulations.

Virtually every major Irish political leader, business and industrial organization, trade union and farmers association has urged passage of a measure they describe as a benign attempt to streamline the E.U.'s notoriously cumbersome bureaucracy and give Europe a more unified and stronger voice in world affairs.

"We have been transformed in our 35 years of E.U. membership," said Ruairi Quinn, a former finance minister who is heading the campaign to pass the treaty. "Now we are trying to transform the E.U. What we're trying to do is make the E.U. fit for purpose in the 21st century."

Opponents argue that the treaty amounts to a Trojan horse that would weaken Ireland's voice in Brussels, where the E.U. is based; eliminate tax advantages that have attracted vast foreign investment to Ireland; and surrender Dublin's political power to "unelected elites."

"It's a sovereignty question, it's a democracy question," said Declan Ganley, 39, a businessman leading a spirited campaign against the treaty. "We've fought for 700 years for the right to hold those who govern us accountable. We don't bend the knee or bow the head easily here."

The treaty provides for creation of a full-time president and a stronger foreign minister to allow the E.U. to speak with a more consistent voice. It would give individual countries more power to propose legislation and the E.U. new powers to create blocwide policies on energy and climate change.

E.U. proponents had earlier tried to accomplish these general goals by drafting a constitution to replace the tangle of treaties that now ties the bloc together. But voters in France and the Netherlands soundly rejected the constitution in 2005, reflecting public anxiety about the organization's growing size and power, and it was withdrawn from consideration.

E.U. leaders later decided to short-circuit the process by writing the measures into yet another treaty, which requires no referendums -- except in Ireland.

For opponents here, one of the most contentious changes would be the reduction of members on the European Commission, the E.U.'s executive branch, from 27 members to 18, serving in rotating, five-year terms. Quinn said the smaller commission would be more efficient, but Ganley said having Ireland off the panel for five years at a time was unacceptable.

Opponents have suggested that the plan will undermine Ireland's traditional neutrality by forcing it into E.U.-led military operations. Quinn counters that the treaty would require member nations to make their military equipment and systems, such as communication gear, more compatible. He said that would make E.U. soldiers more efficient in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

Opponents also said it would threaten Ireland's favorable 12.5 percent corporate tax rate, which, along with E.U. financial assistance, has helped propel Ireland from a poor farming nation to one of the world's most prosperous centers of international high-tech business.

Supporters dismiss such arguments as intentional distortions of the truth and say Ireland's neutrality and power to set its own tax rates are not threatened by the treaty.

"There has been a lot of scaremongering," said Sheena Bourke, 43, outside her voting station in central Dublin. Referring to a slogan often cited by treaty opponents, she said, " 'People died for your freedom' -- how ridiculous is that? What does it mean? It has nothing to do with the Lisbon Treaty."

Bourke said she voted yes because the E.U. has "helped us and doled out money to us for donkey's years. We can't forget that."

Analysts said the treaty is confusing because it contains no single, clearly identified idea, such as adding new member nations or adopting a single currency. Instead, it is hundreds of pages of bureaucratic jargon. And even supporters said the government had been surprisingly ineffective at explaining it to voters.

The results of the Irish voting won't be announced until Friday. Irish and European analysts have said it's unclear what would happen if Ireland rejected the pact. Some say the country would simply be asked to vote again, as it was after Irish voters defeated a referendum on E.U. expansion in 2001, then passed it on the second try the next year.

But skepticism was evident all over Dublin on Thursday. On the city's famed O'Connell Bridge, someone had stenciled "No to Lisbon" on the sidewalk in white paint. While lampposts across the city were draped with posters urging a yes vote, just as many posters urged rejection. "It'll cost you," warned one.

"I believe the Irish people should be making our decisions, not people in Brussels," said Tom Fitzpatrick 24, coming out of a polling place where he said he voted against the deal.

"Ireland has been helped by the E.U., but it's also lost its whole Irishness as well," he said. "We're like everyplace else in Europe now. We're all becoming like one country."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company