By Honor Mahony
EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – With just three weeks to go before Ireland’s highly anticipated referendum on the Lisbon treaty, the country’s European commissioner has admitted that the document is hard to sell because it does not bring tangible benefits to the population.
“One of the difficulties this time in getting out the vote is seeing how you can energise voters,” said Charlie McCreevy in an interview with EUobserver, with pundits widely predicting that a low voter turnout would result in a “No” vote on 12 June.
He noted that arguments such as the treaty “improving the situation” or giving Ireland “a bigger say in a better organisational structure” are not as grabbing as “we’re going to get a whole lot of money through the Common Agricultural Policy or we’re going to get a whole lot of money from structural funds.”
In the past, Ireland has been a major beneficiary of the EU’s generous farm policy as well as picking up aid for its poor rural areas. This, coupled with access to the EU’s internal market, has turned the country into one of the richest member states.
Now it finds itself in an uncomfortable spotlight as the only country to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty – the new set of institutional rules bashed out last year after the shock rejection of the EU constitution by France and the Netherlands in 2005.
The Lisbon Treaty’s main innovations include an EU foreign minister, a permanent president of the EU and freeing up the decision-making process in several areas.
A “No” vote is likely to scupper the whole process, as all member states need to ratify the document for it to kick into place.
Mr McCreevy, in charge of the EU’s internal market portfolio, says: “Looking at it from an Irish perspective,” it would be better to have a Europe-wide referendum to ease the burden on the electorate.
“What this is doing is that the whole concentration of the whole of Europe is solely on us. We’re under total scrutiny.”
“People feel under a fair degree of pressure about this, whereas if everyone was voting you wouldn’t feel under the same pressure.”
In addition, the treaty – an amalgamation of existing treaties, plus a series of innovations, protocols and opt-outs – is not the easiest read.
Mr McCreevy has himself not read it. “I have a document that puts together what it would look like and I have read most of that,” he says.
“I would predict that there won’t be 250 people in the whole of the 4.2 million population of Ireland that have read the treaties cover-to-cover. I further predict that there is not 10 percent of that 250 that will understand every section and subsection.
“But is there anything different about that?” said the commissioner, adding: “Does anyone read the finance act?” referring to the lengthy, yearly documents he drew up when he was finance minister in Ireland.
He conceded that the high percentage of people who remain undecided (47% in the latest opinion poll) could lead to a lower turnout.
“When there is a high number of undecideds in a very complex debate … you’d be very much afraid that it would lead to a lower turnout.”
Riding high in political memory is Ireland’s “No” to the Nice Treaty in 2000 (voter turnout was 34.8%), which was turned into a “Yes” the following year with a turnout of 48.5 percent.
He refused to be drawn on what would it would mean for Europe if Ireland votes “No” this time round, with some analysts suggesting it would plunge the bloc into a protracted political crisis.
“We have to live with that too,” he said, referring to a possible rejection of the treaty. “Having debated the issues thoroughly, months of everyone having their say, all types of issues being dragged into it, the Irish people go to the polls and they must say ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ After it’s over, you shouldn’t complain about it.”