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Europe

Europe Hold its Breath Ahead of Irish Vote on EU Treaty

As Ireland counts down for the European Union's only referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, EU and Irish leaders are keeping their fingers crossed as they hope to avoid disaster.

Man drinking out of a glass imprinted with the EU logo

Ireland's no camp is warning voters the EU treaty will leave a bitter aftertaste

An opinion poll published in the Irish Times Friday showed the no camp five points ahead of the yes, for the first time since the campaign began.

That poll has set nerves jangling in Brussels, as experts warn that a rejection of the treaty could throw the EU into confusion.

"There is no Plan B: if there was a no, in Ireland or in another country, it would have a very negative effect for the EU," the head of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said on May 26.

"If you had a no vote based on a high turnout, the EU's back might be forced against the wall," Hugo Brady, of the London-based Centre for European Reform, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Three years ago, voters in France and the Netherlands threw the EU into political turmoil by rejecting the grandly-titled Constitutional Treaty -- a text aimed at giving the bloc a new role in the world.

It took member states 18 months of paralysis and a year of all-night wrangling at summits to come up with a replacement - the Lisbon treaty which is the subject of Thursday's Irish vote.

Treaty "crucial to Ireland's future"

With polls showing 30 percent of the country's 3 million voters still undecided, Ireland's three main political parties teamed up at a joint press conference Monday, June 9, to make the case.

"For the generation which will shape Ireland in the decades ahead, there is unlikely to be another vote as important as this one," said Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen.

The treaty, which replaced the doomed EU constitution and must be ratified by all 27 EU nations, was "crucial to Ireland's future prospects," according to Cowen.

Presenting a united front

Bus driving past a green billboard

Ireland stymied 2002's Nice Treaty with a 'no'

Cowen -- who only took over as Fianna Fail party head and therefore as Taoiseach (PM) last month -- appeared Monday alongside Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour chief Eamon Gilmore. Together, the three parties hold 149 seats in the 166-member Dail (lower house).

Kenny said the leaders appeared together to show they were "united, on one of the most important issues facing our country," and described the referendum as "profoundly important."

"These are uncertain times, both in Ireland, and in the global economy," added Gilmore. "Now, more than ever, we need to know where we are going. We need to send a message that Ireland is open for business."

"In an ever more competitive global environment, it is imperative we don't give the impression that we are turning our back on Europe and the policies that have served us so well," he said.

Opposition calls for renegotiation

Only one party with parliamentary representation -- nationalist Sinn Fein with four seats -- has opposed the treaty.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams says he wants the government to renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty to include opt-outs or vetoes on issues like neutrality, public services and workers rights. Canvassing in Limerick Monday, Adams said a "No" vote would send a strong signal, and renegotiation would be possible if there was a "No" vote on Thursday, according to reports by broadcaster RTE.

Kenny disagreed, saying it would be irresponsible and wrong for anyone to claim a "No" vote would not have adverse consequences for Ireland.

"The first victims would be the Irish," said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Ireland's booming "Celtic Tiger" economy has long been lauded as an example of the benefits of EU membership.

Gilmore said the treaty would put a damper on what he called "the race to the bottom in workers' pay and conditions."

Island voting

Meanwhile, voting got underway Monday on five islands off the north-western coast, three days before the rest of the country.

In total 745 people are entitled to vote on the islands off the coast of County Donegal. Arranmore, Gola, Inishbofin, Inishfree and Tory traditionally vote early in case bad weather cuts them off, delaying the collection of ballot boxes.

The islanders' votes will be taken by helicopter to the mainland and counted with the remainder of the Donegal constituency's votes on Friday.

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