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Economic woes threaten simplified EU treaty

Latest update : 2008-06-11

Whether they defend business interests or workers' rights, the 'no' side's campaigners have received a boost from worries about the latest economic downturn. (Second of three-part series)

Read our three-part series on the Irish referendum

1. Irish referendum to seal the fate of EU reform treaty
2. Economic woes threaten simplified EU treaty (below)
3. Irish farmers trade 'yes' vote for favourable WTO deal

Ireland's economy is slowing down and some Irish voters are afraid that the EU may bring it to a complete halt. Yet those who oppose plans for further regional integration argue that they have nothing against the European project.

After a boom of 25 years, Ireland's "Celtic Tiger" is expected to come to a near standstill this year. While economic growth topped 5% in 2007, the latest Ulster Bank forecast for 2008 stands at just 0.5%.

The Irish, who had been channeling their newfound wealth into property and home furnishings for the past ten years, seem to have suddenly lost their appetite for expensively decorated mansions. According to Permanent TSB, a leading provider of mortgages to Irish homeowners, house prices fell by 8.9% over the past 12 months.

The Habitat homeware retailer has just announced that it is closing its Dublin and Galway stores because of a "a severe downturn in sales".

Ireland's economic woes are among the concerns that have led some middle-class, internationally minded voters to consider a no vote in the June 12 Lisbon Treaty referendum.

"Don't let Brussels in the back door"

Declan Ganley, 39, is one of them. His company, Rivada, builds telecommunication networks for businesses and governments around the world, including the US military. Rivada's Web site states that Ganley and his family "have homes in Washington, DC, and Galway, Ireland".

He is also the founder of Libertas, a think tank that has become the leading campaigning organization in the no camp.

"Business issues are the reason why I got into this originally," he told FRANCE 24. A Libertas slogan reads: "Tax - Don't let Brussels in the back door." The group thus voices a key concern of the Irish business community: Repeated attempts at EU-wide corporate tax harmonisation are viewed as attacks against Ireland's business-friendly fiscal policy, which has attracted heavy investment from high-tech US giants such as Intel, Google and Pfizer since the 1990s.

While the yes side claims that Ireland can veto tax harmonisation under Lisbon, Ganley argues that the treaty will force it upon the Irish government.

With unemployment reaching 5.5% in April – its highest level since 1999 – every possible threat to Irish competitiveness takes significant proportions in the public opinion.

Ganley also insists that the Lisbon treaty "creates an anti-democratic Europe" by failing to make EU leaders accountable for their decisions. Criticising the proposed creation of a European Council president, to be designated by European heads of government, he said: "How can that president meet the Chinese premier if he is asked: How many people voted for you?"

Ganley does not see his anti-Lisbon stance as an opposition to the EU. "We fundamentally disagree with eurosceptics," he said. "The EU needs to work. But it needs to work for its people, otherwise we'll just send European leaders back to the drawing board."

"A let-down in terms of workers' rights"

The Sinn Féin party adopts a similar position. "This is not a debate on whether we are inside or outside of Europe, we are at the heart of Europe," European deputy Mary Lou McDonald said on RTE radio.

Her party, however, does not campaign on tax issues, but adds leftist tones to its arguments. “Lisbon is a complete let-down in terms of workers' rights," McDonald said, adding that it does not protect public services.

Here again, the prospect of a weakening Irish economy faced with increased international competition strengthens the position of no campaigners.

Yet Diana Panke, who lectures in European politics at University College Dublin, ensures that the Irish are not as opposed to the EU's core principles as the French were during the 2005 campaign against the European constitution. "Irish citizens are very much in favour of the EU. There is not as much euroscepticism here as there is in France," she said. "The no camp just says: Europe has been good for Ireland, let's keep it this way."

Photo by Free Stater

Date created : 2008-06-05