Lisbon II: ?Yes? looking good but pitfalls lie ahead

With the Ireland's October 2 polling date edging closure, what will be the likely result for Lisbon?

 

Since its
citizens rejected the Lisbon Treaty at its first referendum, sending shockwaves
across Europe and threatening to derail the EU’s integration project, the economic
outlook in Ireland
has grown increasingly grim. A burst property bubble, a teetering banking
industry and years of wage inflation have all ensured that the country was one
of the first going into Europe’s recession and
will be one of the last to come out of it.

The
sobering effect of this sudden and sharp economic slump on Irish society has helped
sharpen minds in the wake of the No vote. A traditionally pro-European country
faced with the prospect of being forced into the political wilderness by
frustrated bureaucrats in Brussels-at a time when it needs the EU’s stabilising
influence more than ever-politicians, journalists, and key figures from
business and civil society have called for the public to reflect on whether
Ireland could really afford to say “No” to Europe a second time.

With
polling day edging ever closer, it seems this painful period of reflection and
consensus-building has borne fruit for the “Yes” camp. Earlier this month, the Red C opinion poll in Ireland’s
Sunday Business Post put the Yes vote at a high of 62 per
cent, arresting the slide of the last couple months that saw support drop from
58 to 46 per cent. More importantly, the crucial number of undecided voters has
shrunk to 15 per cent; almost half the figure going into last year’s defeated
referendum. Less people are undecided about the treaty this time round-and
those who made their mind up in recent weeks are clearly leaning in its favour.

The efforts
of Lisbon’s
proponents to win the hearts and minds of the Irish people have been helped
significantly by the weakening of its opposition. The big beast of last year’s
No campaign, Declan Ganley, whose clinical leadership of Libertas was
instrumental in torpedoing Lisbon
I, desperately rejoined the campaign trail, having initially called time on his
political career in June after failing to get a seat in the European
Parliament. The absence to this point of his cash, political savvy and clarity
of voice has weighed heavily on the other opposing groups assembled from the
far left and far right, such as Sinn Féin and Cóir, who have resorted to
rehashing well-worn arguments about taxation, abortion, and the minimum wage
used last year. The end result has been a No campaign that is less unified, prepared
and well-mobilised as last year.

While the
omens, therefore, look promising for Lisbon II, the careful work of the past 12
months could however be undermined by the very government pressing for its
passage.

In April
2008, Ireland’s
ruling party, Fianna Fáil, was left reeling from the resignation of
long-serving prime minster Bertie Ahern over a protracted corruption scandal.
The subsequent passing of the baton to his finance minister, Brian Cowen,
served as a massive distraction for the Government in the following months,
leaving it little time to educate and inform voters about a treaty far more
complex and wide-sweeping than either Maastricht
or Nice.

Now, over a
year later, the Government looks set to create another unwelcome distraction and
jeopardise Lisbon’s
future once again. Increasingly unpopular, with a historically low approval
rating of just 17%, the administration decided to sign-off on its controversial
National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) plan earlier this month, and began
debating the merits of the legislation in the lower chamber of Ireland’s
parliament, the Dáil, in a special session last Wednesday.

The NAMA
scheme-which aims to revitalise the battered Irish financial system by creating
a clearing agency into which banks can transfer their €80-€90bn’s worth of bad property
loans, thus clearing their books-remains widely unpopular among the Irish
population, with a recent poll putting its support at just 25%. It has also
drawn criticism from economists, who question the theory behind the proposal,
and the two main opposition parties in the Dáil, who argue that it serves to
benefit a small group of property developers rather than the wider Irish
populace.

With no
firm date set for the legislation to pass, and a heated debate likely as
opponents seek to deal a fatal blow to a weakened coalition government already edging
towards collapse, it seems likely that NAMA could present all parties with an
unwelcome and divisive distraction at the very moment when a unified,
bipartisan approach to Lisbon is a necessity. This would undoubtedly give a
flagging No campaign some fresh impetus coming into the home straight.

The
Government, at least, are not oblivious to the scale of the task ahead of them.
Micheál Martin, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and campaign director
for the Lisbon II Yes campaign, noted recently that “there is a very
significant challenge ahead, it’s going to be a very tight campaign and it will
demand all of the resources, conviction, politics and passion of all of those
on the Yes side”.

A famous
Irish playwright once said that “we learn from history that we learn nothing
from history”. With Lisbon II just weeks away, it remains to be seen whether
the Irish government has truly taken on board the lessons learnt from Lisbon
I’s doomed referendum. If the NAMA proposal unwittingly taps into the
deeply-rooted resentment towards the Government, then the conviction and
passion Minister Martin talks about may not be enough-just like last year.

 

Karl Smyth is a media intern at the European Council on Foreign Relations.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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