Europe, Headlines

EUROPE: Tempting the Irish to Say Yes

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jan 23 2009 (IPS) - Ireland’s rejection of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty has led Brussels officials to plan a major publicity campaign aimed at convincing voters that they should respond favourably to the bloc’s economic, social and foreign policies.

Later this year the Dublin government will hold a second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, after a majority of Irish voters opposed it during 2008. Anxious to avoid another defeat, the European Commission has earmarked 2.7 million euros (3.5 million dollars) for an advertising strategy designed to encourage a “positive emotional identification” with the EU, according to a document outlining the project.

Ireland is alone among EU countries to have given its citizens the opportunity to vote on the treaty. With all 27 countries required to ratify the treaty before it can come into place, the Dublin government has undertaken to hold a second referendum, after it receives promises from the EU that concerns raised about such matters as the country’s military neutrality, its level of representation in the Brussels institutions, and the rights of workers have been addressed.

The publicity campaign is to be largely directed at young people. This follows research indicating that 62 percent of people in the 18-24 age bracket who cast their vote rejected the treaty, more than ten percent higher than the general ‘no’ vote.

Joe Hennon, a Commission spokesman, said that publicity efforts will not be specifically focused on the second referendum but on addressing “the longer-term problem of lack of knowledge about the EU in Ireland.”

The initial campaign is to be conducted before elections to the European Parliament this summer, although Hennon said that additional resources could be made available over several years.

According to the Commission, the publicity being planned is in response to a report drawn up by Ireland’s parliament, the Oireachtas. It stated that EU bodies pay “insufficient attention” to explaining the rationale behind its laws, and particularly the treaties that form the bloc’s core rule book.

But critics of the EU’s policies argue that the Commission is meddling in internal Irish affairs. A 1995 ruling of the Irish supreme court found that the use of public funds for a partisan advocacy campaign ahead of a referendum violated the country’s constitution.

Patricia McKenna, a former member of the European Parliament who instigated the legal action in that case, said it would be “outrageous” for money from the EU taxpayer to be used for a one-sided publicity campaign.

Although supporters of the Lisbon treaty maintain that it is primarily aimed at streamlining the EU’s decision-making apparatus, it would nonetheless enshrine controversial principles of economic policy into the Union’s rule books. For example, it commits the Union to removing any barriers that European companies encounter when doing business abroad. Some anti-poverty groups believe such ‘barriers’ include social and environmental legislation enacted by poorer countries with which western firms do not wish to comply.

The treaty also has provisions that are considered a threat to Ireland’s status of being militarily non-aligned. It requires each EU country to come to the aid of another that finds itself under attack. And it stipulates that each country will increase its expenditure on defence, without providing any similar onus on states to improve health, education or other social services.

Joe Higgins, leader of the Irish Socialist Party, said that the Commission’s “interference will be resented by the majority of people here, including people who voted Yes.”

As well as campaigning against the Lisbon treaty, Higgins will be a candidate in the forthcoming European Parliament elections. “It would be a great concern if the EU launches a campaign before the elections with the intention of influencing the outcome of the elections in favour of political parties who happen to be campaigning for a Yes vote,” he said.

Another Irish court ruling, dating from 2000, requires the public broadcasting service RTE to allocate equal time for announcements by campaigners on each side of the debate before a referendum. A number of politicians on the Yes side have complained about how this ruling has been interpreted. By allocating equal airtime to each side, they say, elected representatives are elevated to the same status as unelected activists.

But Michael Youlton from the Campaign Against the EU Constitution said that RTE had not been as even-handed in its coverage last year as supporters of the treaty maintain.

Research to be published by the campaign this weekend concludes that ahead of the referendum 70 percent of relevant news and current affairs coverage featured figures from the Yes side, compared to 30 percent for the No side.

“There are a whole set of moves to minimise the appearance of No campaigners by the media,” Youlton added. “They (supporters of the treaty) are going to try everything that is in their power. We think we can win a second time, although we think it is unfair that we are having this second referendum.”

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