BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is holding its breath and trying to avoid controversy before Ireland votes next week in a potentially make-or-break referendum on the Lisbon treaty to reform the EU’s creaking institutions.
A “Yes” vote, even by the narrowest of margins, would bring immense relief to the continent’s leaders, hasten parliamentary ratification elsewhere and help lay to rest more than a decade of wrangling over the bloc’s structures.
A “No” from the only country legally bound to hold a referendum would probably doom the treaty — itself a re-draft of an EU constitution which French and Dutch voters rejected in 2005 plebiscites.
That would plunge the 27-nation Union into a new crisis of confidence over its inability to be attractive to electors. It could also revive calls for a hard core of integration-minded states to press ahead without the laggards.
Diplomats say an Irish “No” could prompt Britain and others to suspend parliamentary ratification, leaving the EU to soldier on with its cumbersome decision-making system, a dysfunctional foreign policy apparatus and an inefficient rotating presidency.
“We will all pay a price for it, Ireland included, if this is not done in a proper way,” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said last week.
“There is no Plan B,” Barroso said. “If there was a “No”, in Ireland or in another country, it would have a very negative effect for the EU.”
Fourteen countries have completed ratification, but the Czech senate has referred the treaty to the constitutional court in a move that could delay its entry into force, due in January.
The treaty would create a long-term president of the European Council of EU leaders, a stronger foreign policy chief with a real diplomatic service, a more democratic voting system and more say for the national and European parliaments.
That may all hinge on the votes of the 4.3 million Irish, less than one percent of the EU’s nearly 500 million citizens.
Opinion polls show the “Yes” camp in the lead but the key question is whether new Prime Minister Brian Cowen, even with the support of the main opposition parties, can mobilise sufficient supporters to turn out.
A poster child for the economic benefits of EU enlargement, the “Celtic tiger” has enjoyed faster growth than any other member state in its 35 years of membership and has emerged from the historic shadow of British dominance.
The “No” camp, a loose coalition of nationalists, pacifists, protectionists, ultra-Catholics and leftists, has highlighted fears of small countries losing influence in Brussels and of farmers falling under the wheels of global trade liberalisation.
To soothe the Irish, the EU has tried to keep world trade talks out of the headlines, avoid talk of harmonising the way corporate tax is levied or of reforming farm subsidies, and stay quiet about how the Lisbon treaty will be implemented.
Irish voters have already shocked Europe once in 2001 when they rejected the Treaty of Nice, meant to adapt the EU for eastward enlargement, only to reverse that vote in 2003 after Dublin negotiated assurances on its neutrality.
“It would be really very difficult for them to hold a second referendum this time,” said Hugo Brady, an Irish analyst at the Centre for European Reform think-tank in London.
“If the Irish vote no, it will turn the June EU summit into a crisis summit,” he said.
The most immediate impact could be in Britain, where a resurgent Conservative opposition party has campaigned in vain for voters to be allowed a referendum which the ruling Labour Party had promised on the EU constitution.
Antonio Missirolli, research director at the European Policy Centre think-tank in Brussels, said an Irish defeat would raise doubts about the EU’s ability ever to get any treaty ratified by all 27 member states, especially with referendums.
“The whole (EU) project could be put into question because of the lack of delivery,” he said. “It would be the third failure in a decade and the second on essentially the same institutional reforms.”
Missirolli said EU leaders would look to Ireland to say how the problem could be solved, but he predicted a revival of talk of a group of like-minded countries moving forward together.
“It’s a recurrent argument normally used as a deterrent against reluctant member states, but in those circumstances, it could really become a serious debate,” he said.