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Can a big, ignorant fellow from Offaly save European unity?
DUBLIN, Dec. 10 — Six months ago the Irish electorate infuriated Europe’s leaders by rejecting the Lisbon Treaty, designed to reform the European Union, and introducing the prospect that less than one per cent of the EU’s 490 million citizens might sabotage its future.
The embarrassed Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, is now preparing to ask his compatriots to vote again on the question — and this time to get the answer right.
Signed by the governments of all 27 EU members in the Portuguese capital in December 2007 after six years of tough negotiations, the Lisbon Treaty is intended to increase EU efficiency in tackling global challenges such as climate change, terrorism and immigration.
Before it can come into force however, it has to be ratified by each country individually. Ireland alone was obliged by its constitution to hold a referendum. On June 12 voters rejected the treaty by 53 to 47 percent. All other EU countries except the Czech Republic have ratified the treaty, and the parliament in Prague is expected to give its assent early in the new year.
The crisis has dominated the six-month EU presidency of France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, who last week pressed Cowen to hold a second referendum.
The burly cigarette-smoking Irish prime minister — nicknamed BIFFO (Big Ignorant Fellow from Offaly) — has seen his popularity plummet to 26 percent since June, partly due to a harsh budget that brought protesting pensioners, students and teachers onto the streets.
In the face of a collapse in real estate values, a banking crisis and an economy in deep recession, there is a risk that a new vote could become a referendum on an unpopular government.
However, the even worse calamity that the world financial crisis has visited on Iceland, which is not an EU member state, has demonstrated how Ireland’s national interests are best protected by being embedded at the heart of Europe.
Any new referendum will be fiercely opposed by Declan Ganley, a controversial Irish entrepreneur with an English accent — a result of his London upbringing — whose anti-treaty organization Libertas joined forces with fringe left- and right-wing groups, as well as farmers and fishermen, to scupper a deal they claimed gave too much power to Brussels.
By his own account Ganley raised 800,000 euros (then about $1.2 million) for his June campaign, including a personal loan of 200,000 euros, almost matching the Irish government’s referendum budget. Citing Irish electoral law he has refused to disclose the source of the other 600,000 euros.
Ganley’s close connections with the U.S., where he holds a key position with Nevada Networks LLC, a military contractor, has renewed debate here on a perennial national question: whether Ireland is closer to Boston than Berlin.
Shortly before the June referendum, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, in an address in Dublin, added fuel to the argument by urging Irish voters to reject the Lisbon Treaty because it could undercut NATO.
Peter Sutherland, formerly Ireland’s EU Commissioner, called the “no” vote “an unmitigated disaster for Irish foreign policy,” and put much of the blame on misinformation emanating from eurosceptic British newspapers circulating in Ireland.
After meeting Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in recent days, Cowen said he was examining the conditions “by which Ireland could consider looking at this issue again.” He will brief a summit of EU leaders on his plans this week in Brussels.
These conditions could include the withdrawal of a provision that Ireland lose its one full-time seat on the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, something which agitated many Irish voters. The EU may also seek to meet concerns about Irish rights to legislate on abortion, taxation and military neutrality.
A new referendum campaign would certainly have to make the dense, 300-page treaty text more comprehensible to voters. Much was made before the first vote of an admission by Cowen that he had not fully read the document that he was asking voters to ratify.
European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said on Tuesday he was convinced that the Commission could satisfy the main concerns raised in the first referendum.
But even a “yay” vote by Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty will not ensure the end of protests here and in other member states.
Libertas is now expanding into a pan-Europe movement to rally eurosceptics in the run-up to elections to the European Parliament in June 2009. Among its supporters is the right-wing Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, who outraged the Irish government in November by dining with Ganley in Dublin during a state visit to Ireland.