DUBLIN, Ireland – 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 EU 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 EU 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. EU governments now work closely together on trade, currency, defense, foreign policy, counterterrorism, health, agriculture and a host of other issues. EU 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 EU’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 EU membership,” said Ruairi Quinn, a former finance minister who is heading the campaign to pass the treaty. “Now we are trying to transform the EU What we’re trying to do is make the EU 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 EU 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 EU to speak with a more consistent voice. It would give individual countries more power to propose legislation, and the EU new powers to create blocwide policies on energy and climate change.
For opponents here, one of the most contentious changes would be the reduction of members on the European Commission, the EU’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.
The results of the Irish voting won’t be announced until today. 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 EU 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.