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EU: Ireland Holds Future Shape Of Europe In Its Hands

Dublin looks ahead to the June 12 referendum (AFP) Ireland's comparative handful of a few million voters seems set to decide the future shape of the European Union, with its 490 million people.

As the vote nears, however, it is clear that big member states find a way to push Ireland aside if it rejects the years of work that have gone into the controversial Lisbon Treaty.

Ireland votes in a referendum on June 12 on whether to approve the treaty, a constitution-like document that sets out the powers of the European Union vis-a-vis its member states.

Alone among the 27 EU member states, Ireland is bound by its law to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

In all the other EU states, national parliaments are approving the document, which means it is practically assured of acceptance. But as EU treaties must be approved by all member states, an Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty would shatter the EU's plans to streamline its structures to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

That leaves all EU eyes fixed squarely on the Irish, who make up just 1 percent of the union's population.

A robust campaign by opponents of the treaty means the Irish might well vote against it. Opinion polls issued in the days before the referendum, including one that puts the "no" camp in the lead -- indicate the vote will be close.

The treaty is basically the same as the hapless EU constitution, which, in a major upset, was rejected in 2005 by referendums in both France and the Netherlands. Brussels has trimmed the contents, and repackaged it as the Lisbon Treaty. But it is still 350 pages long. And very few voters have read it.

Among other things, the treaty reduces the member states' right of veto, increasing instead qualified majority voting; the number of competencies controlled by the EU is increased; and it provides for the appointment of an individual EU president and foreign minister.

The senior political correspondent for the "Irish Times" newspaper, Mark Hennessy, says the government, led by new Prime Minister Brian Cowen, has done a poor job of explaining the complicated treaty to the public.

It started its campaign late because of distractions caused by the resignation last month of long-serving Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. By contrast, the "no" campaigners have been working the media since last winter.

"The 'no' campaign has been quite clever in putting out a whole series of allegations, some of them often contradictory, and the government has had to spend most of its time to deflect and reject the allegations put forward by the 'no' side, rather than having the opportunity to put forward a positive case for the treaty," Hennessy tells RFE/RL.

The question arises as to whether the rest of the EU would try to circumvent an Irish "no" vote. A French minister reflected a certain strand of opinion when he said that any country rejecting the Lisbon Treaty should consider leaving the EU.

But senior analyst Marco Incerti of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels says he doubts that the member states will take that line. He notes that the people of the Netherlands and France have previously rejected the substance of the treaty, and the EU heeded their decision by stopping the ratification process -- at least temporarily.

He suggests that if a popular vote in Ireland was also to reject the treaty, it would be incompatible with democratic practice to penalize the country in some way.

Incerti says there are some people elsewhere in the EU who would be actively hoping that the Irish vote fails. "They feel some of the core issues of democracy have not been addressed, that the citizens have not been involved enough [in the treaty process]," he says. "They are hoping for a 'no' because in this case, this could be really the final wake-up call for EU leaders."

Incerti says that nevertheless there is already some discussion about how to circumvent a possible negative outcome in Ireland. One possibility might be to employ a mechanism called "enhanced cooperation," which allows groups of EU member states to club together to cooperate on certain agreed areas of activity not followed by the other members.

In other words, as many states as so wished could join together to implement the Lisbon Treaty, leaving aside without penalty those members who did not.

But this mechanism was conceived to cover only a few policy areas at a time. It's not clear how it would work if some countries remained outside the main framework of the EU's organization.

EU Expands Eastward

EU Expands Eastward

To view RFE/RL's archive of coverage related to EU expansion, click here .