European leaders will be looking to the Republic of Ireland on Thursday, as the people go to the polls to vote on the EU fiscal treaty.
Of the 25 European nations signing up to the fiscal pact, Ireland is the only country putting the treaty to a referendum. The United Kingdom and the Czech Republic refused outright to back the treaty, which introduces tough new deficit rules and spending restrictions for national governments.
Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said back in February that he expected a "very strong endorsement" of the treaty from Irish voters.
But since then, the mood in government circles has altered.
"It's going to be a yes, but it'll be much tighter than people think," said Brian Hayes, a junior finance minister in Kenny's center-right Fine Gael party.
The latest opinion polls suggest there is a majority in favor of the new treaty, but a large number of voters are still undecided.
Anti-austerity mood gains ground
The more cautious tone from the Irish government is largely due to the growing uncertainty elsewhere in Europe. The new French President Francois Hollande was voted into office partly on his pledge to renegotiate parts of the fiscal treaty. Meanwhile in Greece, voters turned to anti-austerity parties in droves at recent elections, leaving an uncertain political situation.
"There's been a lot of discussion, particularly since Hollande got elected, about the game-plan changing at a European level," said Siobhan O'Donoghue, who is campaigning for a no vote in Ireland on behalf of the civil society organization, For a Better Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made it clear that Germany will not allow any changes to the fiscal treaty, before or after the Irish referendum.
"Four countries have already ratified it, so no change will happen," said the chancellor's spokesman, Steffen Seibert on Friday.
The new treaty will come into effect once it has been approved by 12 EU governments. Ireland has no power of veto, but a rejection from the Irish voters would mean that the country would be excluded from the terms of the agreement. It would therefore prevent the Irish government from accessing loans from the European Stability Mechansim (ESM), the successor to the eurozone's current rescue fund.
Irelandreceived an 85-billion-euro ($112 billion) bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in November, 2010, as it struggled to cope with massive debts and the high cost of borrowing. The yes camp is quick to point out the risk that Ireland may need a second bailout.
Support from business leaders
The two governing parties, Fine Gael and Labour, have crucial support from one of the main opposition parties, Fianna Fail.
"I think the availability of access to the ESM is of paramount importance. While we would hope to be in a position to avoid a further bailout, one cannot be certain about that," Fianna Fail's chief whip and spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, Sean O Fearghail told DW.
"The passing of this treaty will help to build confidence in the euro and in the Irish economy and will lead to growth and hopefully greater employment prospects," he added.
Business leaders are also keen to give the treaty their endorsement. Sean O'Driscoll, chairman of the Glen Dimplex manufacturing group said that it was "disingenuous" to claim that Ireland could remain in the eurozone if the public rejected it.
"There is only one vote, and that's a yes vote," O'Driscoll added, speaking in Dublin last week.
Yet no one is taking the yes vote for granted. The Irish are angry about having to deal with massive austerity cuts: according to a report by the Irish Independent, emigration is at its highest since the 19th century, with 3,000 people leaving the country every month in search of a better life elsewhere. The unemployment rate for 2011 was 14.4 percent, and much higher among young people.
Sinn Fein, the United Left Alliance and a range of other groups from across the political spectrum are urging voters to reject the treaty.
"We think that Europe is at a crossroads and that we're rushing in to ratify a fairly flawed and out-of-date treaty and that this will have far-reaching social and economic costs," Siobhan O'Donoghue from For a Better Europe told DW. "We need to wait and see what might be renegotiated at a European level, but also it's important to take a stand in solidarity with that movement across Europe which is promoting a stimulus and growth approach to the crisis that we're in."
One of the most high-profile campaigners for the no vote is Declan Ganley, a businessman who played a big role in the defeat of the Lisbon treaty in the first round in 2008. But many say the no camp's biggest weakness is its failure to say what will happen if voters reject the treaty and the country should need a second bailout in the future.
Irish voters have been asked to approve no fewer than nine EU treaties in the last 40 years. They have twice voted no - in 2001 and in 2008 - though both times the vote was overturned in a second round. This time, Enda Kenny insists there will be no second chance.
The referendum has been described as a battle between conflicting emotions among voters: the fear that rejecting the treaty could send Ireland and Europe down the path to ruin, against the anger about the hardship resulting from four years of austerity. At the moment it seems like fear will trump anger.
Author: Joanna Impey
Editor: Michael Lawton