The E.U.'s Future: Back in the Hands of Irish Voters

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Peter Muhly / AFP / Getty

Lech Walesa, left, on a visit to Ireland to campaign for a vote in favor of the Libson Treaty

Seamus Daly has stiff competition on his hands. In the front window of his small wine store on the main road from Drogheda to Dublin are blackboards with handwritten messages extolling the virtues of his rosés and reds. But passing motorists can barely see them with all the brightly colored posters and banners crowding them on either side. "Ireland Needs Europe," reads one. "Lisbon = Lower Wages," warns another.

On Oct. 2, Irish voters will go to the polls for a second time to vote on the Lisbon Treaty, an agreement already ratified by most of the other 26 members of the European Union that aims to reform and streamline the newly expanded organization. In June 2008, Irish voters roundly rejected the treaty in the only national referendum to be held on it, sinking the hopes of E.U. backers across the continent. In the 15 months since that vote, however, Ireland's fortunes have changed dramatically in the global recession, and the government and many prominent business leaders are now urging residents to vote yes, saying this may be the only way to ensure the Celtic Tiger bounces back.

Support for the treaty has been hovering around 50% for months. In the latest national poll, conducted by the Irish Times last week, 48% of respondents said they supported the agreement, compared with 33% who said they were against it. But a full fifth of the population hasn't made up their minds, giving the no camp the belief that it can sway enough voters in the final days to make the tally close. For some opponents, who say the treaty will create an overly centralized E.U. and take away individual state decision-making powers, another no vote would give the unpopular government led by Prime Minister Brian Cowen's Fianna Fail Party its just deserts. Cowen's critics say that Fianna Fail squandered Ireland's wealth during the boom years and mishandled the country's economic recovery efforts. But it could also leave the E.U. reeling — officials fear a no vote could permanently sidetrack efforts to overhaul the aging institution.

In a large shopping mall that opened in Drogheda four years ago at the height of Ireland's economic boom, Aaron Hodgins' menswear store is completely empty. The 34-year-old manager recently laid off two staff members and is worried he may lose his own job soon if sales don't pick up. He'll be voting no for the second time on Oct. 2. "There are too many countries [in the E.U.] now, and we'd just be sucked into it. Ireland won't have a voice in Europe and we'll be right down the pecking order," he says. As for the government's campaign in support of the treaty? "They keep telling us that we're informed, but of what? They're only telling you what they want you to hear," he says.

Others in Drogheda believe that a more fully integrated E.U. can only help stem Ireland's economic malaise. The unemployment rate sits at over 11% — more than twice the figure at this time last year — and is expected to reach 15% by 2010. In addition, the country's Central Statistics Office said last week that more people are leaving Ireland than arriving for the first time in 14 years.

"Europe has been very good to Ireland," says Daly, the wine-store owner, who says he'll vote yes for a second time this week. Daly supplies wines to Drogheda's hotels and restaurants and says business has been "very tough" in the past year. "People may be unhappy with the government, but to punish them in the Lisbon vote would be the wrong thing to do. Being a member of the euro [currency zone] is what's got us through the crisis so far. I can't see Ireland surviving alone."

On a street corner in another part of town, Andrew Byrne, 24, is handing out bright green lollipops to passersby. Byrne is a member of Generation Yes, an independent, pro-Lisbon campaign group targeting young voters. In the last referendum, 18-to-25-year-olds had the highest proportion of no votes of any age-group. Handing a leaflet to an undecided young mother, Byrne tells her that the treaty will help tackle human-trafficking and improve energy security in Europe. The woman appears unmoved. "I voted no last time because of militarization," she says. "And I don't think the government has done anything to make the issues clearer." Many voters fear that defense arrangements in the treaty could lead to conscription of E.U. citizens into a new E.U. army. But the government has negotiated legal guarantees that would protect Ireland's military neutrality as well as its other laws, like its restrictions on abortion.

Hilda Bailey, a 24-year-old teacher trainee, has changed her mind on the treaty since voting against it last year. "Job-wise, it looks pretty grim [in Ireland]," she says. "My friends have been trying [to find work] for months and months and now they'll probably go to England." Bailey says the treaty is the only answer to Ireland's woes. "My parents say that they'll do the exact opposite of what the government's telling them," she says. "I can understand how they feel — [the government] kind of screwed us over. But there's a bigger picture. Without Europe, things would definitely be worse."

It's hardly a ringing endorsement. But rather than face the implications of a second no vote, which some say could lead to Ireland's exit from the E.U., the government will welcome all the yes votes it can muster — however grudging they may be.