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Polls on EU treaty close in Ireland, turnout low

Latest update : 2008-06-13

As polls on the reform treaty of the European Union close in Ireland, all eyes are on voter turnout. Will the Yes campaign get enough voters into polling stations?

 

DUBLIN - Irish voters had their say on the Lisbon treaty on Thursday, the only citizens in the 27-member bloc given the chance to vote in a referendum on the replacement for a rejected European Union constitution.

 

The treaty, intended to make the EU stronger and more effective, has the backing of all the main political parties in a country that has prospered from its membership of the bloc.

 

Bookmakers say the odds are in favour of a "Yes" vote but an opinion poll last week put opponents of the treaty briefly ahead, alarming EU leaders.

 

The entire project could be doomed if Irish voters reject it and no alternative plan has been prepared. The outcome will not be known until Friday.

 

With an hour left before polls were due to close at 10 p.m. (2100 GMT), turnout was moderate, with public broadcaster RTE forecasting it at about 40 percent. Light turnout could help the "No" camp, whose backers tend to hold strong views.

 

In 2001, low Irish turnout almost scuppered EU plans for eastwards expansion when voters rejected the Nice treaty in a referendum with only 35 percent turnout. That treaty passed when a second referendum was held, with 49 percent turnout.

 

"I genuinely think a lot of people will not make up their mind until they stand in the ballot box with a pen in their hand," said Damian Loscher, head of pollsters TNS mrbi.

 

The last opinion poll of the campaign, published at the weekend, showed the "Yes" vote narrowly ahead.

 

The approval of all member states is required to ratify the treaty, which replaces a constitution abandoned after it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

 

MAKE-OR-BREAK

 

This time all other EU countries have avoided holding popular votes. Ireland's constitution requires a referendum on any amendments, giving make-or-break power to voters in a nation with less than 1 percent of the EU's 490 million population.

 

The treaty envisages a long-term president of the European Council of EU leaders, a stronger foreign policy chief and a mutual defence pact. It would also develop a more democratic voting system and give a greater say to Europe's parliaments.

 

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan told Reuters canvassing by his party indicated the "Yes" camp had regained momentum. He said the EU had no fallback position if the pact is rejected.

 

"You are talking about a coat that was knitted together by 27 different countries," Lenihan said after casting his vote in Dublin. "It is very difficult to knit that coat again."

 

Fourteen countries have already ratified the treaty in their national parliaments. The treaty is due to come into force on Jan. 1 if all nations ratify it.

 

EU leaders fear some countries, such as Britain, may suspend the process if Ireland votes "No". A senior EU diplomat said Britain had told its EU allies it had "no intention to pull the plug on this" even if the Irish vote no.

 

The "Yes" camp says Ireland's diplomatic clout and economy would suffer if voters rejected reforms drawn up by a union whose support underpinned the "Celtic Tiger" economic boom.

 

Data on Thursday showed shoppers reining in spending. Unemployment is rising, but is below the European average.

 

"We face economic challenges and Europe provides a framework of stability for investment in Ireland. If you create uncertainty in that framework, that is bad for Ireland and bad for Europe," said Lenihan.

 

Opponents such as nationalist party Sinn Fein say Brussels and the government have tried to bully people into backing the treaty and say it should be renegotiated to better protect Ireland's sovereignty, military neutrality and influence.

 

"The "Yes" campaign believe they have this in the bag," said Mary Lou McDonald, a Sinn Fein member of the EU parliament. "It will depend on turnout. I think it will be a close call."

 

Check out additional FRANCE 24 articles on the referendum:

1. The Irish referendum

2. Farmers and the "yes" vote

3. The economic arguments behind the "no" vote

 
And find out more about the possible consequences of an Irish "no" vote by watching the FRANCE 24 Debate.

 

Date created : 2008-06-12

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