The future of Europe hangs in the balance in Ireland, where result announcements of the referendum on the Lisbon Treaty are expected on Friday. Around 40 percent of Irish voters cast ballots, according to an estimate by state broadcaster RTE.
Counting of votes was set to start at 9:00 am (0800 GMT), with full results expected after 3:00 pm (1400 GMT).
Around 40 percent of Irish voters cast ballots Thursday in the referendum, according to an estimate by state broadcaster RTE just before polls closed, with some commentators saying the low turnout favoured the "no" camp.
Ireland's roughly three million voters effectively hold the future direction of the entire EU -- population nearly 500 million -- in their hands as the Lisbon Treaty needs approval by all 27 EU member states.
If Ireland votes "no" in what is the only popular vote on the issue anywhere in the bloc it will cause chaos.
Backers of the treaty, which aims to make EU decision-making more efficient, struggled to get their message across, despite a campaign led by Prime Minister Brian Cowen that was backed by all bar one of the main political parties.
With many Irish people complaining that they do not understand what the treaty is about, pre-referendum opinion polls placed the "yes" and "no" camps virtually neck-and-neck.
Cowen, who only became Taoiseach (Irish for prime minister) a month ago, defended his tactics in the campaign as he cast his vote Thursday just outside Tullamore in the Irish Midlands, where he has a home and strong political base.
"Yes I'm happy, I've led it the very best way I possibly could, I did it from the front, I've gone all over the country, I've put the issues," he told reporters.
But opponents have dominated the campaign debate, rallying support around claims including that the treaty threatens sensitive Irish policies like the ban on abortion, low corporation tax and military neutrality.
Libertas, a group run by businessman Declan Ganley, and left-wing Sinn Fein, led by Gerry Adams, were among the most prominent "no" campaigners.
Ganley had urged people to vote "no" so that Ireland can retain a stronger voice in Europe which he said would be wiped out by the treaty.
"I hope, and I firmly believe, that the Irish people will vote 'no' and that the work can immediately begin on constructing a better vision of Europe for all its 490 million citizens," he said.
One opinion poll last week put the "no" campaign ahead on 35 percent, compared to 30 percent for those backing the treaty, while another survey Sunday predicted a narrow "yes" victory, by 42 to 39 percent.
While defeat on the traditionally unlucky Friday 13th would be unlikely to cost Cowen his job, it could cause him problems with fellow European leaders.
Some European big hitters have said they would be baffled if Ireland -- whose 1990s Celtic Tiger economic boom was partly-fuelled by European money -- was to vote no.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said earlier this week that an Irish "no" to the treaty would be greeted with "gigantic incomprehension" by the rest of Europe.
"The first victims would be the Irish. They have benefited more than others," Kouchner told RTL radio, in comments widely reported here.
Ireland has caused upsets in EU referendums before. In 2001, its voters rejected the Nice Treaty, a result overturned in a second poll the following year.
This time, though, Cowen and other big hitters insist there is "no plan B" in case of a rejection.
In total, 18 other European nations have already ratified through parliamentary votes the Lisbon Treaty, which would create a full-time EU president and foreign policy chief.
Check out additional FRANCE 24 articles on the referendum:
And find out more about the possible consequences of an Irish "no" vote by watching the FRANCE 24 Debate.
Date created : 2008-06-13