Ireland’s referendum on the Reform Treaty
Ireland is the only country that must hold a referendum to endorse the new Reform Treaty. Treaty debate is likely to be fairly low-key and the referendum is likely to yield a ‘yes’ vote.
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Ireland is the only country that must hold a referendum to endorse the new Reform Treaty. There are several reasons to be optimistic that the Irish electorate will support the Treaty in the vote, which is scheduled for some time in 2008. First, the Irish electorate is largely well-disposed towards European integration and the political system will act to ensure that the complacently low turnout of 2001 (which led to the original 'no' vote on the Nice Treaty) will not be repeated.
This is reinforced by several factors that have led Ireland to become more pro-European over the last few years. Most importantly, the 2004 expansion of the European Union to twenty-five member states (and the 2007 expansion to twenty-seven) has been economically beneficial for Ireland, with immigration from the New Member States a key factor in preserving high economic growth rates. Moreover, the expansion has diluted fears about a European Union that is dominated by a small number of large countries - a larger European Union in which there are a considerably greater number of smaller countries seems a more comfortable system for Ireland. Low-cost air travel has also allowed many more Irish households to deepen the European element in their identities by becoming regular visitors to other parts of the European Union, with a boom in the purchase of overseas holiday homes and investment properties.
Four further developments have reduced the influence of anti-Europe campaigners.
First, the Green Party - a traditional campaigner against European treaties - is now a member of the governing coalition.
Second, there is an increasing awareness among the Irish electorate that the major political issues - such as climate change, international development and global security - are best handled through shared sovereignty arrangements, with the European Union providing an effective mechanism for Ireland to influence the global debate.
Third, there is considerable pride in Ireland's successful handling of the EU presidency in the first half of 2004 and the key role played by An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in brokering the agreement on the original version of the Reform Treaty.
Fourth, the government instituted a national Forum on Europe in the wake of the 2001 'no' vote, and this has provided a highly effective mechanism to improve awareness of EU institutions and policies among the Irish electorate.
The final point supporting the likelihood of a ‘yes’ is that the Irish government has taken the calculated decision to follow Britain by opting out of the justice and home affairs provisions in the EU reform treaty, which are designed to tackle crime on a cross-border basis. This step has been taken in recognition that Ireland and Britain share a common travel area and the same common law system, which differs in key ways from continental traditions. While this decision has been criticised by those who favour a deeper level of European integration, it should neutralise the anti-Treaty campaign in a pivotal area.
For these reasons, I am optimistic that the Treaty debate will be fairly low-key and the referendum will be easily carried.