Will Irish 'ayes' be smiling soon?

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The EU's Bernard Kouchner has stepped into the debate

WARNING that the Irish would be the "first victims" if they reject the EU constitutional treaty in a referendum this Thursday, Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, yesterday made the highest-profile intervention by a major European player in the country's fierce debate.

Speaking on RTL radio, Mr Kouchner said the Irish "have benefited more than others" from the EU's integration and would "be punishing themselves" if they vote No in the referendum.

He said that such an outcome would be met with "gigantic incomprehension" in the rest of Europe.

This week, it will be up to 2.8 million Irish voters to determine whether the EU's nearly 500 million citizens should be governed by the treaty, which was painstakingly crafted to replace a draft constitution that was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

If the treaty clears the Irish hurdle, supporters are optimistic it could be ratified this year throughout the 27-nation bloc because no other member state is putting it to a referendum.

Three opinion polls over the past week have left the result too close to call, putting pro-treaty voters anywhere from seven percentage points ahead to five points behind.

"I believe this treaty will be passed. I believe in the discernment and the common sense of the Irish people," said Brian Cowen, the prime minister, who has toured the country over the past month warning of the damage that a treaty rejection would do to Ireland and the EU.

Most of the Irish establishment – the government and opposition parties, employers, major newspapers and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions – back the treaty as the best possible deal for Ireland. They argue that an Irish No would undermine the nation's diplomatic clout and its attractiveness as a base for foreign companies – the secret of its economic success.

But grass-roots Ireland, despite profiting handsomely from 35 years of EU membership, has never sounded so Euro-sceptical as now.

That's because Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy, which roared to life in the mid-1990s and has pretty much been booming ever since, is suddenly looking deeply vulnerable as households battle rising prices and debts.

Government spending has fallen hard into the red, the global credit crunch has hammered a long-soaring property market, and unemployment is on the rise.

The Tiger attracted 200,000 eastern European immigrants who poured into Ireland when the bloc nearly doubled in size in 2004 – and now there are complaints that there aren't enough jobs to go around.

Unlike most European Union members, Ireland promoted an open-door policy for EU job-seekers.

Today, one out of every six jobs is held by a foreigner, including 90 per cent of the past year's newly created jobs, a government report found this month. EU critics claim the Lisbon treaty will accelerate the import of lower-salaried workers and export of jobs eastward.

Experts say that in the current climate it's easy to forget how much the EU has brought to Ireland.

"The future of the EU could hang on whether prosperous middle Ireland, whose very existence is considered one of the triumphs of European integration, will care enough on the day to turn up," said Hugo Brady, an analyst at the Centre for European Reform.

Irish referendum laws require both sides to enjoy equal media time and state funding. This has helped propel unknowns from the political fringes into the mainstream.

Dublin humorist Brendan O'Connor mocked the anti-EU lobby as "a motley crew of crusties from the far left, mysterious and downright mad people from the far right, and former terrorists and their colleagues."

Nonetheless, these ill-documented fringe groups and nationalists like Sinn Fein, have kept the Yes campaign on the defensive.

They have plastered Ireland with posters warning that the treaty will force Ireland to surrender its sovereignty on moral, military and financial matters.

One conjures up the memory of Ireland's patriot dead from the 1919-21 war of independence from Britain. "They died for your freedom. Don't throw it all away. Vote no," it reads.

An arch-conservative Catholic group called Coir – "Justice" in the native Gaelic – warns darkly that the treaty could force Ireland to legalise abortion, euthanasia, prostitution and hard drugs.

Micheal Martin, the foreign minister, after debating with a Coir activist live on national radio, sounded exasperated. "It's hard to believe that anyone in their right might could believe such ridiculous nonsense," he said.

The government has struggled, however, to rebut widespread predictions that the EU will ambush Ireland with post-referendum demands to raise its corporate tax rate, even though the treaty does not alter the rule that all member nations must agree unanimously on EU-wide tax laws.

Ireland's rate is among the lowest in Europe and a major reason why more than 600 US companies have chosen Ireland over other potential European bases. EU heavyweights France and Germany have repeatedly complained it is unfair and against the spirit of the common euro currency.

"The hour after Lisbon is passed, the 12.5 per cent tax rate will be in peril," predicted Shane Ross, an Irish senator and business commentator.

BACKGROUND

THE Treaty of Lisbon would reshape EU institutions, create potentially powerful new roles for an EU president and foreign policy chief, and streamline the way the bloc takes decisions by reducing national veto powers.

Essentially it would resurrect most reforms proposed in the failed EU constitution, which was rejected in referendums by France and the Netherlands in 2005.

The treaty would trim the European Commission from 27 to 18 members; increase decision-making based on majority rather than unanimous votes among nations; and boost the policy-making powers, but at the same time prune the membership of the 785-seat European Parliament.

So far, 15 countries have ratified the treaty which would come into force in 2009.

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