Close to three million Irish people are eligible to vote on the EU Fiscal Treaty on Thursday 31 May. This referendum – the only one in Europe – is key to the future of a treaty designed to strengthen the euro by forcing governments to keep a strict balance between their income and spending.
The last opinion polls suggest roughly a 60% lead for the “yes” camp. This would be a commanding lead, even a done deal, if almost one voter out of four were not undecided, just a few days before the vote. Three opinions polls published on Sunday put the “Don’t Knows” between 16% and 27%. This indicates confusion over the main issues. According to one poll, one voter out of three does not understand the Fiscal Treaty, despite the energetic “yes” campaign led by the Irish government in recent weeks.
'If you don’t know, vote no'
The gap between the “yes” and the “no” is closing fast. And it is a source of concern for the Fine Gael (centre-right) and Labour coalition in power, which has put all its weight behind this referendum.
The turnout will be key to the outcome of the referendum. If below 50%, the “yes” side may be in trouble, as traditionally the “no” camp -- led in the opposition by Sinn Féin and the hard left -- is better at getting its supporters out to the polling stations. There is a saying about referendums in Ireland: “If you don’t know, vote no”. Ireland said “no” to the Lisbon Treaty, and to the Nice Treaty before that, on the first referendum held in both these cases. Irish voters later changed their minds on both these EU treaties, in a second referendum.
Will Ireland vote twice on the Fiscal Treaty?
The Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has ruled this out. But there is a view, shared by the right-wing think tank Libertas among others, that Ireland should vote “no”, and wait for another referendum when a growth and stimulus package is agreed by the EU member states.
There is a key difference between the Fiscal Treaty and past European treaties. In this case, it only takes twelve EU member states to ratify the Treaty before it is set in motion. Irish voters no longer have a veto. Eurozone countries can therefore go ahead without Ireland.
Fear versus weariness with austerity
Fear is the main weapon in the “yes” camp’s arsenal. In their opinion, the consequences of a “no” vote could be disastrous for Ireland and for Europe. “It would have the effect of putting into question the stability of our currency and the eurozone as a whole,” Ireland’s Europe Minister Lucinda Creighton said to France 24, “so I can’t really see any benefits of a “no” vote. I can see lots of consequences”. The Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore (Labour) told France 24: “I think the people of Ireland understand that this Treaty is necessary in order to help stabilise the euro; that it is necessary to ensure that there is investor confidence in Ireland to create jobs”.
For the Irish government and “yes” campaign, the main opponent in this referendum is the public’s weariness with austerity, after three years of recession. A regime of drastic reductions in public spending and higher taxes has been dictated by Europe and the IMF since the 2010 bailout.
“Austerity has failed here, failed miserably and it has no prospect of success,” argues Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. “We need to trade and grow our way out of this. The Irish people are up for that, but they need the political expression to give leadership to that”.
£Twenty-five of the 27 EU governments have pledged to ratify this budgetary pact. Among the new rules, states will have to reduce their debt to a maximum of 60% of their total income or GDP (Gross National Product).