Vote in Ireland could determine EU's future


DUBLIN, Ireland — On a pedestrian mall in the heart of Dublin, an Australian street performer who calls himself the Space Cowboy broke his own world record Tuesday by simultaneously swallowing 27 swords that were lashed together, each one's handle topped with the flag of a European country.

The heavily tattooed 30-year-old with a spiky hairdo was in the Irish capital for a world street performers' competition, but his appearance overlapped a spectacle of a different sort: a national referendum by one of Europe's smallest countries, whose outcome could breathe new life into the European Union or kill prospects for a constitution for years to come.

His sword act may be an analogy for what's happening in Ireland this week. On Thursday, residents of the island nation that accounts for less than 1 percent of Europe's population will vote in a referendum that gives them outsized influence that could affect the entire region and beyond. Irish voters essentially have the power to kill plans that EU leaders crafted to assume more control over member countries' decision-making and boost a unified Europe's profile on the international stage.

At the moment, this little country is holding a sword over the whole of Europe.

The vote has implications for the United States as a leading ally and key trading partner with Europe. Views in Washington are split on whether the plan is in America's interests. The State Department generally has been a supporter of the Lisbon Treaty — as the package of proposals is known — arguing that a more coordinated and decisive Europe will be a better partner. But some members of the Bush administration, as well as the Pentagon and neoconservatives, oppose the treaty as a potential threat to NATO and bilateral ties with individual countries.

Ireland, population 4 million, is the only one of 27 EU members that's putting the Lisbon Treaty to a popular vote. All other countries are pushing it through their legislatures, and thus far it's been undefeated. An earlier attempt to approve an EU constitution was defeated when it was put to popular votes in France and the Netherlands.

The outcome in Ireland looks too close to call, "as tight as a camel's bottom in a sandstorm," as a columnist for the Irish Independent wrote Wednesday.

One poll last weekend showed treaty supporters — who include leaders of Ireland's three main political parties and big business groups — in the lead, but another one several days earlier showed the "no" side with a strong advantage.

The opponents include a number of strange bedfellows: Socialists, Sinn Fein (a political party with ties to the Irish Republican Army), conservative Roman Catholics and some rich entrepreneurs. The country's big farm unions are divided. There's also a sizable bloc of undecided voters who are being wooed up until the final hours before polls open. Many voters say they can't understand what they're voting on; the treaty is several hundred pages long.

The irony is that thanks in large part to EU membership, Ireland has been transformed from a poor cousin to a Celtic tiger. EU aid has helped build roads, bridges and schools. As employment surged, the population outflow that began in the late 19th century has been reversed. From 1997 to 2007, Ireland had the fastest growing population in Europe, with immigrants flocking to the country. Now, 15 percent of the country's population is foreign-born, double the proportion of 10 years earlier. Chinese students work in traditional pubs and Africans serve customers in Dublin hotels.

Polls show that blue-collar workers are most skeptical about the treaty, but one of the most articulate voices in the "no" camp is a successful Galway businessman named Declan Ganley, whose company supplies technology to the U.S. National Guard. He's declared the Lisbon Treaty "anti-democratic" and claims that it will hamper innovation in Europe.

Another hot-button issue is abortion. Despite assurances from a senior Catholic bishop that the treaty won't affect Ireland's anti-abortion position, many Catholics fear that the European Court's more liberal views will prevail.

Many Irish also resent that Europe's political elites seem to be taking their citizens for granted. As Eamonn Murphy, an anti-treaty campaigner who runs a Catholic bookstore, summed up, it was "a mortal sin" for the French and Dutch governments to "steal" votes from their populations on this treaty by forcing it through their legislatures instead of putting it to the voters.

(Sell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)