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Some Irish have doubts on European treaty

A vote on the new EU constitution appeared to be a formality, but opposition has built over key issues.

June 01, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

NENAGH, IRELAND — The "Yes on the EU" bus rolled into town blaring a foot-stomping "Galway Girl" from its megaphone one afternoon last week, but what it got was a whole lot of no.

An Irishman has always been a hard sell, and never more so than when issues of sovereignty are at stake.

"People died for your freedom," declares one of the signs that have popped up in this agricultural town as Ireland prepares to vote June 12 on the European Union's new constitution. "Don't throw it away."

Farmer Ida McLoughlin isn't sold on the other posters plastered around town: "Vote yes for jobs, the economy and Ireland's future."

"Since the EU, all you see are 4x4s going down the street and big buildings going up. The thatched cottages are gone," McLoughlin said. "You have all these Johnny-come-lately people who were poor and got rich, and they're dreadful people. We've lost our Irish values."

Adoption of the so-called Lisbon Treaty requires ratification by all 27 member states of the EU, which could take a much more prominent role on the world stage under the streamlined diplomacy and beefed-up military readiness the document envisions.

Fourteen nations have ratified the agreement through their parliaments, and the remainder are expected to do so by the end of the year. Only Ireland's constitution requires a referendum -- and that could make or break the long-awaited constitution.

The Irish government, most business leaders and political parties of nearly every stripe have come out overwhelmingly in favor of the Lisbon Treaty, pointing out how Ireland's membership in the EU over the last 35 years has helped transform the Emerald Isle of 4.1 million people from an impoverished backwater dependent on Britain to one of Europe's most robust economies.

But a newly vigorous opposition composed of farmers, a few wealthy businessmen with vague connections to the U.S. defense establishment and the leftist Irish republican party, Sinn Fein, have gained quickly in recent polls, and the outcome is suddenly no longer a sure thing.

It is not clear what happens if Ireland says no -- except that the union would surely be plunged, as it was when France and the Netherlands voted down an earlier EU constitution in 2005, into uncertainty and more tedious negotiations on what EU leaders say is a badly needed framework for decision-making among its suddenly more numerous member states.

"It would put us in the very tortured position of going back to the drawing board," said Marc Coleman, a Dublin-based economic analyst.

The treaty signed in Lisbon in December would help Europe project itself more forcefully on the international stage by creating a European Council president and foreign affairs representative while outlining a framework for EU troop deployments in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions.

The treaty would broaden and establish a legal basis for the EU's lawmaking powers in some areas while making them subject much more directly to national parliaments and citizens initiatives. It would set out voting weights between large and small countries, improve cross-border cooperation in areas such as crime fighting and climate change and streamline the European Commission to a manageable decision-making body of 18.

Under the treaty, member nations still would retain their historic veto power in crucial areas such as defense, foreign policy, taxation and social security, but not on issues like immigration and energy policy.

Voters in overwhelmingly Catholic Ireland worry that the nation would be forced to expand abortion rights (no), forfeit its long tradition of military neutrality (no) or give up the holy grail of the Celtic Tiger economic miracle, Ireland's 12.5% corporate tax rate (probably not, though some in Europe would like to try).

Treaty opponents say the government is too smoothly dismissing what may be legitimate fears and is too quick to warn that Ireland would incur the wrath of the rest of Europe if it voted no.

"People always say Ireland is in very good standing at the European level. But why wouldn't we be? We haven't invaded one of the partner countries, we haven't partitioned them. But we're also a small member state, and in the power structure that is the EU, small states have to be very careful in how they protect their status and institutions," said Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the European Parliament with Sinn Fein.

Here in County Tipperary, the "Yes on the EU" bus was stopping in front of village cafes and bakeries; young activists from the majority Fianna Fail party trailed out in yellow T-shirts. They smiled and passed out leaflets touting EU membership as a bonanza for Ireland -- the country received 58 billion euros in European funds for agriculture, infrastructure and other programs from 1973 to 2003. Its exports to other EU states increased from 45 billion euros in 1997 to 87 billion in 2006.

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