In Europe, all governments will be looking to Dublin on Thursday when the Irish people go to the polls to vote yes or no to the Lisbon EU reform treaty. It is the only referendum being held on the treaty in the EU, and if it is voted down, there will be virtual panic in Brussels that could even, in the long run, lead to the collapse of the 27-member block. As former EU commissioner Peter Sutherland commented over the weekend, this Irish vote could be the "most crucial decision in international affairs in its history."
Perhaps this is a bit of hyperbole, but it's hard to think of a vote in Ireland's history that has affected people in other countries as much as this one will. If Ireland votes no to the reform treaty it would derail the entire process, which could force the treaty to be scrapped. And if the EU can't make these changes, which it deems necessary for it to function properly, the very future and purpose of the union would likely be called into question.
Brussels has been caught off guard by last week's polling, which showed that the number of people who intend to vote 'no' and those who will vote 'yes' are now about even, with a massive amount of people still undecided. At the begining of this process, few would have expected a snag in the ratification to come from Ireland, a country that has benefitted enormously from EU membership and is one of the most pro-EU countries in the block. But, the only reason Ireland is the only nation putting the treaty approval to a public referendum isn't because it's unpopular or controversial there, but because a quirk in its constitution requires it.
Of course in many ways, the confusion around this referendum in Ireland demonstrates exactly why every other EU country has avoided one: putting a complex, 300-page document's approval up for a vote by a public almost completely unfamiliar with its contents is hardly the best way to run a government. A majority of the people who have answered pollsters saying they would vote 'no' have cited the fact that they don't understand what the treaty is as the reason. A majority of the rest cited reasons that don't actually reflect the reality of what's in the treaty. Direct democracy at its finest.
Now the government is scrambling to push an old-fashioned 'get out the vote' effort with their constituencies. But without the time or resources to educate six million people about the vagueries of a 300-page tome, parliamentarians are going to have to resort to basic 'because i said so' mobilisation efforts, probably even personally driving their constituents to their polling station. And it will be almost the entire parliament that will be doing this, because every serious party in Ireland wants the referendum to pass. The only party in parliament that doesn't is Sinn Fein - the political wing of the IRA whose main issue is the unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic – and they only have six MPs.
The 'no' pushers are a loose coalition of various factions who have various issues with the treaty but are banding around a basic appeal to nationalism - the idea that a 'yes' vote on the treaty would effectively be surrendering Ireland's military independence and history of neutrality. This claim though is dubious, as the treaty doesn't obligate member nations into any specific foreign or military policy. There are other more legitmate objections, such as the idea that Ireland should have negotiated for special opt-outs like the UK did, or that Ireland occasionally losing a seat on the European Commission after it is shrunk is not in its best interest. But even these issues are a bit complicated, so the campaign for a 'no' vote is being framed around nationalism - as demonstrated by the posters around the city this past weekend. The vote is also seen by many to be a referendum on the government of new prime minister Brian Cowen, and many say they will vote 'no' just to send a message that they don't like the prime minister.
What Would Happen?
If Ireland does vote 'no' on Thursday, there are a few possible courses of action, none of which will be very palatable to Brussels. In the first, the government will just put it to another referendum again in a few months, changing nothing but campaigning more vigorously this time and making a massive effort to educate people about the treaty. This is what happened when Ireland voted no on the Nice Treaty in June 2001. A revote was held in October 2002, and this time turnout improved and Yes won by a longshot. A revote is the best outcome for Brussels, but of course it will delay the treaty's implementation and in the mean time the EU would be in a state of dysfunctional limbo. Plus, in the mean time other countries might feel pressured to reverse their position and hold a referendum as well, particularly the UK.
The second possibility is that the Irish government will attempt to negotiate special opt-outs for itself and then go back to the public with a referendum on a different agreement. Of course this would be hard to do since the grievances of the 'no' voters don't seem to be very specific, so the government would be unsure of what opt-outs it would need to ask for in order to make them happy. Brussels wouldn't be very happy with this outcome either because if every tiny country started demanding opt-outs from treaties in order to ratify them, the whole union would fall apart. The UK is a special circumstance, but if a country the size of Ireland, which has benefitted so much from EU membership (and particularly EU subsidies) then turned around and demanded special opt-outs, it would enrage many similar-sized countries on the continent.
The third possibility is the most dire, in fact it is what many in Brussels are calling the 'doomsday scenario.' If Ireland says 'there's no way we can get this treaty to pass a public vote,' Ireland would either have to change its constitution (which, since it would require another referendum, is extreemly unlikely) or the entire treaty would have to be scrapped. The problems that currently exist in the union would go unfixed. People would lose their faith in the union's workability, and it could eventually either degenerate into just a glorified free trade zone or cease to exist at all.
Across the Irish Sea
No matter which of these three scenarios followed it, much has been made of what a 'no' vote in Ireland would immediately mean in the UK. No doubt, it would be bad news for Gordon Brown, who has stuck to his guns and refused calls for a referendum in the UK. Besides keeping alive an issue Brown wants to go away, it would also give credence to the idea that he is trampling on a massive tide of public will. If even Ireland, a country that has benefitted enormously from EU membership, doesn't want this treaty, how can Brown force it down British throats?
But what is perhaps lost in this theorizing is that a 'no' vote in Ireland would be even worse news for the prime minister's rival, David Cameron. Because as much as a 'no' vote in Ireland would be a headache for Gordon Brown, it would be an absolute nightmare for David Cameron, and could very well derail the Tory win the country seems headed for in the next general election. As the Economist's Euroblog pointed out today, despite his public posturing demanding a referendum, everyone behind the scenes at Westminster knows that Cameron is desperate to avoid Europe becoming an issue in the next election.
The Conservative party is historically split over this EU issue, with half being pro-Europe and half being Eurosceptic. Cameron does not want to see a civil war erupt in his party once again over ratification, particularly during an election when the nastier, more hard-line Eurosceptic Tories would come out of the woodwork with some not-too-nice words about the continent, which would be damaging to the "softer Tory" brand Cameron is trying to create. If the treaty still hasn't been ratified by the time Cameron came into office (if he did), he would of course be expected to call a referendum based on his posturing for a referendum up till now. Cameron of course knows that he can't call a referendum, because it would surely fail and derail the whole process and throw Britain's relationship with the EU, and the EU itself, into turmoil. But if the issue is still open by the time of the next general election, it may force his hand.
In any event, Thursday is going to be a key turning point in the EU. If the Irish vote yes, nothing should stop the Lisbon Treaty from coming into force in a matter of months, making the union a stronger, more functional body with the constitutional question finally behind it. If Ireland votes no, it could be the catalyst that eventually leads to the disintegation of the union.