, DUBLIN, May 29 – Recession-racked Ireland faces a test of its support for the European Union (EU) in next week’s Euro elections, ahead of a crunch referendum on the EU’s beleaguered reform treaty.
The former Celtic Tiger’s EU partners will be watching closely as embattled Prime Minister Brian Cowen seeks to convince his countrymen that they need the EU more than ever as the downturn hits hard.
Ireland’s voters plunged the 27-nation bloc into limbo when 53.4 percent of them rejected the Lisbon treaty in a referendum here in June 2008.
After obtaining a series of guarantees, including on retaining a European commissioner for Ireland, Dublin has agreed to organise a new vote, likely in October — and it is a vote Cowen’s government cannot afford to lose.
Irish voters will join an estimated 375 million voters across the 27-nation EU when on June 5 they elect 736 members of the European Parliament, the only directly-elected EU institution which as one of its functions passes the EU Commission’s budget.
The campaigns for and against the Lisbon treaty will not start until after that poll — but the referendum is already on everybody’s lips.
A second ‘no’ result "would be damaging to our international reputation and our economic prospects", warned foreign minister Micheal Martin last week, welcoming signs of growing support for the treaty.
A poll published in mid-May found 52 percent of voters back Lisbon compared to 29 percent against it.
Analysts have attributed this change to the deep recession, predicted by the country’s leading think tank to be the worst in any industrialised country since the 1930s.
Looking to the referendum, Martin said: "If ever there was a time for Ireland to unequivocally confirm our commitment to the European Union, this is that time."
"Our future wellbeing requires that we copper-fasten our position at the heart of the European Union," he added, noting the European Central Bank has made "remarkable amounts of liquidity" available to Ireland’s financial system.
But although the economic crisis may have strengthened support for Europe and the treaty, it has severely dented the government’s popularity.
While Ireland’s neighbours have tried to boost growth through fiscal stimulus, Dublin has imposed austerity budgets including higher taxes and a cut in social spending — sparking a equally tough response from voters.
A poll for the Irish Times two weeks showed support for Cowen’s ruling coalition had plunged to 10 percent, the lowest since the survey began in 1982.
"A political earthquake is offing," the Times said, predicting a triple defeat next month in the European elections, and the local elections and two Dublin by-elections that take place on the same day.
In the by-elections, Cowen’s centrist Fianna Fail party is expected to come in a humiliating third place, a result that would not threaten the government’s comfortable majority but would seriously damage its credibility.
It would be the party’s "worst result since 1922", said the Irish Examiner, and "would lead to suggestions that the government doesn’t have the people’s mandate", according to the Sunday Business Post.
The opposition Fine Gael party has already said it will table a motion of no confidence against Cowen’s government if the defeat is as bloody as predicted.
"The government will continue," Cowen has insisted, rejecting calls to bring forward general elections which are not due until 2012.
Analysts say Cowen’s government is likely to survive, at least in the short-term — but they are unsure if it could take another hit in the event of voters rejecting the Lisbon treaty for a second time.