May 12, 2008 / 5:02 PM / 11 years ago

New Irish PM urges voters to say "yes" on EU treaty

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s new prime minister Brian Cowen on Monday kicked off his party’s campaign to urge voters to back the European Union’s reform treaty in next month’s referendum in his first major test as premier.

Ireland's newly elected Prime Minister Brian Cowen waves to photographers as he leaves the President's residence in Dublin May 7, 2008. Cowen on Monday kicked off his party's campaign to urge voters to back the European Union's reform treaty in next month's referendum in his first major test as premier. REUTERS/David Moir

Ireland is the only EU state planning a referendum on the treaty, meaning that a “no” vote could sink the project designed to end years of diplomatic wrangling over reform of the bloc’s institutions.

“It would be a very backward step to resign from the strategic political positioning we have established in 35 years of (EU) membership,” Cowen told reporters. “It would have very serious implications.”

In 2001, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty designed to enable EU enlargement, forcing the government to hold a second vote that was widely criticised as undemocratic. A second vote is unlikely to be an option in 2008.

A poll over the weekend by Ireland’s Sunday Business Post newspaper showed a gain in support for the treaty at 38 percent, up from 35 percent previously. Those who planned to vote “no” dropped to 28 percent, from 31 percent last month. A third of voters remained undecided, unchanged from the last survey.

Dublin was awash on Monday with posters as the June 12 referendum date was officially announced. Many placards called for a “yes” vote, reflecting the backing it has among most of Ireland’s political parties as well as business groups.

But a recent poll showed a majority of voters in one of Europe’s smallest countries do not understand the treaty, which replaces an EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

Cowen took over last week as prime minister after Bertie Ahern stepped down as a corruption investigation began to overshadow the government’s work.

He said “recent events had “dominated” the political debate, but added that his Fianna Fail party planned a vigorous, national effort to ensure success at the polls.

Cowen said Fianna Fail, the biggest party in Ireland’s coalition government, aimed to clarify the treaty with an extensive information campaign.

“This is a good and balanced treaty which protects what works best in the Union and reforms it in important ways,” he said.

Opponents fear it will damage Ireland’s military neutrality and its power to regulate its own tax affairs. The government and the accord’s supporters say it safeguards those concerns.

Irish nationalist Sinn Fein is the only party to oppose the treaty.

“In our view, it is a bad deal for Ireland,” Mary Lou McDonald, a European lawmaker with Sinn Fein told Reuters. “It is unquestionably a further centralising treaty, with more powers to the (EU) institutions and less to member states.”

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