Ireland is likely to be a major stumbling block to the ratification of the EU’s new treaty after an opinion poll this week found just 25 per cent of people supported the new treaty. While only 13 per cent were opposed, a massive 62 per cent of those polled by the Irish Times were indifferent or unsure of their opinion. The poll is significant because Ireland is the only one of the 27 member countries that is constitutionally bound to subject the treaty to a referendum.
All the other member states require support from the national parliament only. Irish foreign minister Dermot Ahearn said the poll showed the government could not take support for granted and talked up the merits of the treaty. “It will be about Ireland's future in Europe," he said. "I am confident that the Irish people will reaffirm their commitment to Ireland's proud place at the heart of the union."
The treaty is planned to be signed on 13 December in Portugal with ratification to follow in calendar year 2008. Ireland has yet to schedule the referendum but it is most likely to be held in May or June next year. The referendum is likely to attract ‘no’ campaigners and Eurosceptics from across the continent. All the major parties within Ireland itself support the treaty. This includes the Greens who opposed the last EU referendum, but now support this one from their position of government coalition partners.
Fine Gael Opposition leader Enda Kenny blamed the governing Fianna Fail party for the loss of public support citing the secrecy of the negotiations. They have negotiated the treaty in secret, with virtually no public debate or consultation," he said. "Nothing has been done to provide the Irish people with information about the provisions of the treaty or to explain its importance for the future of Europe."
The last EU treaty was delayed for years when Irish voters rejected it in a 2001 referendum. Ireland rejected the Treaty of Nice (pdf) which prepared the ground for EU enlargement. The Treaty of Nice was adopted by the EU to amend two earlier treaties the 1956 Treaty of Rome (which established the then-Common Market) and the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (which led to the creation of the euro). Nice’s purpose was to reform the EU’s institutional structure in the face of the significant enlargement from 15 to 25 countries in 2004. Ireland rejected the 2001 version in a poor 35 percent referendum turnout by 54 to 46 percent.
A second Irish referendum in 2003 reversed that vote, after the insertion of a treaty clause clarifying Irish neutrality. In this plebiscite, there was a concerted campaign to get out the vote, which increased to 48 per cent. It was passed with 63 per cent of the vote. In other words, the number of people voting “no” was roughly the same as 2001, but the “yes” vote was greatly increased. This was after a concerted effort by the major parties not to repeat their “limp” campaign of 2001. 39 per cent of those surveyed (ppt) who voted no in 2001 said the reason they did so was because of “lack of information”.
A similar education campaign may now be required in Ireland to see the new referendum get over the line. The new treaty is designed to reform the EU after the failed ratification of the European Constitution which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. The EU heads of government signed the Berlin Declaration (pdf) in March this year setting out an ambitious path forward to achieve unity.
While the Declaration does not mention the treaty by name, there was no doubt that this was then-EU President and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s aim. She said updated rules and institutions were essential to ensure the Union retained “the capacity to act”. Germany wants a new treaty to salvage parts of the constitution to include a new EU president and foreign minister and simplified voting rules. They are also likely to propose new sections on topical issues such as climate change and energy. While France and the Netherlands are unlikely to place the fate of the treaty in their voters hands again, Ireland and its tricky constitution will once again become the barometer for the future health of the EU.