Ireland goes to the polls Thursday in the European Union's only referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. EU and Irish leaders are holding their collective breath as they hope to avoid disaster.
The Irish referendum hangs in the balance -- along with the future of the Lisbon Treaty?
With a traditional eve-of-vote news blackout in operation in Ireland on Wednesday, the country's three leading political parties, who have pushed hard for a yes vote, were cautious ahead of the referendum.
As polls show the result of Thursday's vote is balanced on a knife-edge, Prime Minister Brian Cowen told Irish national broadcaster broadcaster RTE Tuesday that if there was a no vote, Ireland could not wait another eight years for reform of the EU in order to compete with emerging economies such as China and India.
He added that Europe would go back to an uncertain situation if the Lisbon Treaty was defeated.
Cowen emphasized that all of Ireland's concerns had been catered to in the treaty, RTE reported.
He said it was his deeply held belief that the Lisbon Treaty was crucial to Ireland's future prospects. He was convinced people would see through the negative arguments and expressed confidence that by the time the polls closed the yes side would have prevailed.
Opposition Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny described Thursday as "a moment of truth" for Ireland.
Labour's Eamon Gilmore said a no vote would result in confusion and uncertainty with people worried about their jobs.
Unemployment uncertainty may sway voters
The "no" camp has enjoyed a spurt in support of late
Figures released Tuesday showed Irish unemployment above 200,000 for the first time since 1999, the equivalent of 5.4 percent of the workforce. This "was not the time for Ireland to raise doubts about our relationship with Europe," he said.
Together the three parties hold 149 seats in the 166-member Dail (lower house). 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 such as neutrality, public services and workers' rights.
A no vote would torpedo the ambitious Lisbon Treaty, which is designed to reform the 27-nation bloc and make it more efficient and effective in dealing with the challenges posed by globalization.
Irish electorate has form
Ireland vetoed the Nice Treaty in 2002
In 2001, Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty, another reform project, but ratified it in a second vote 16 months later after a declaration was inserted clarifying Irish neutrality.
This time around it is fears about job security, farming, taxes and religion that have dominated the debate in a country that has been one of the main beneficiaries of EU largesse.
The mood has also been affected by a sharp fall in growth that has raised fears the "Celtic Tiger" is losing its bite, leaving people worried about their financial future.
Sinn Fein has claimed the treaty would open the door to tax harmonization, forcing Ireland to scrap the low corporate taxes that have attracted many foreign companies to the country.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has taken pains to point out that approval of the treaty would still leave Ireland with a veto on tax issues.
But no campaigners accused the EU chief of putting a gun to Irish heads when he stated in Brussels recently that Europe "will pay a price" if voters reject the treaty.
Referendum in the balance
The "nays" seem to have it
Latest opinion polls show that the outcome of the referendum hangs in the balance.
There has been a surge in support for the no campaign to 35-39 percent, while those backing yes are down to between 30-42 percent, leaving around one-third of the 3.1-million electorate undecided.
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.
Ominously, just as in the French and Dutch votes, opinion polls now show that Ireland's yes campaign is struggling to gain ground, despite the support of all major political groups.
"The campaign has been set up and framed by the no vote: the yes camp is trying at the last moment to regain the momentum," Piotr Kaczynski, an expert on EU constitutional affairs at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, said.
No vote could stop EU reform in its tracks
Clear skies above the EU but are more clouds gathering?
Observers agree that the impact of a no vote could, if it were based on a high turnout (approaching 50 percent), bring the process of EU reform to an abrupt and painful end.
A resounding no vote would "pretty much mean closing the (EU) constitutional process ... You could forget about treaty reform in the EU-27," Kaczynski said.
It could even trigger an EU-wide upheaval, potentially splitting the bloc into a "two-speed Europe."
Member states "could abandon the (27-member) treaty and push ahead with smaller groups" on specific issues, relegating opponents of deeper union to "second-tier membership," Brady said.
Indeed, experts say that if the Lisbon Treaty fails, states which favor closer integration could decide that it is time to forge ahead with what the treaty calls "enhanced cooperation" with a select group of partners -- leaving the rest in the cold.
"The Lisbon Treaty allows "enhanced cooperation," but it sets rules -- for example, that you can't block anyone from joining it if they fulfill the criteria. If the enhanced cooperation is done outside the treaties, those rules aren't clear," Kaczynski warned.
In the short term, those doomsday scenarios seem unlikely to become reality. In the three years since the French and Dutch referenda, the EU has not only managed to keep functioning, it has even enlarged to take in two new members, Romania and Bulgaria.
And while no less a figure than Barroso himself warned, before the French vote, that there was "no Plan B," the EU survived to approve just such a Plan B: the Lisbon treaty itself.
Irish rejection would add pressure on bickering Europe
Which way would the EU go if Ireland says no?
But a no vote would, most certainly, cast the spotlight on Brussels, as the EU's leaders -- scheduled to hold a summit in the city on June 19 -- debate why the world's biggest trading bloc finds it so hard to win the support of its own people.
And with issues from oil and food prices to climate change crowding onto the agenda, the last thing the bloc can afford is yet another summit dominated by agonized soul-searching.
Meanwhile, the German and Finnish foreign ministers have expressed the wish that the Irish electorate vote in favor of Treaty of Lisbon.
"We hope and wish that the referendum in Ireland has a positive result," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said when the two ministers met in Berlin Tuesday.
Steinmeier and his Finnish counterpart, Alexander Stubb, said they were optimistic on a yes vote in Thursday's referendum.
"The most recent numbers are fairly positive," Stubb said.
The Irish referendum topped the agenda of the talks, which also centered on the situation in the Middle East, relations with Moscow and Baltic Sea issues.