Ireland is the only EU member state that has chosen to ratify the Nice Treaty by popular referendum rather than by parliamentary majority. But when the country goes to the polls today, less than half the 2.8 million people eligible to vote are likely to come out and cast their ballot on an issue with major implications, both for Ireland's future in Europe, and for the EU's own development.
The likely low turnout reflects a combination of voter apathy, ignorance and great confusion about the details of a treaty that has failed to capture either the public's interest or its imagination. That is none too surprising, given the nature of the document. The Nice Treaty, which was negotiated over 10 months by 15 countries, is designed to facilitate the EU's enlargement to 27 member states, by putting in place the institutional changes necessary to enable the 12 applicant countries from eastern Europe to join the Union.
For Ireland, as for the other member states, the compromise necessary to reach agreement in prolonged negotiations at Nice last December inevitably meant accepting some further sharing of sovereignty and loss of power, both to ensure effective EU decision-making and to accommodate the applicant countries.
The reweighting of votes on the Council of Ministers has left Ireland with fewer votes there. Nevertheless, it still has two and a half times more than its population size would justify. And by 2009 or 2014, depending on the pace of enlargement, Ireland will also lose its right to nominate a European Commissioner. However, the larger states (including Britain) will have given up their second Commissioners much sooner.
Yet despite the mainly technical changes proposed by Nice, opinion polls taken over the course of the three-week campaign show that the referendum could be a close-run affair. And that is despite the support of the Government, the Republic's main political parties, the Catholic Church, trade unions and farmers, all of which have come out strongly in favour of a Yes vote. The worry for the Government is that in each of the four referenda since 1972 when Ireland voted by a four to one margin to join the then EEC the majority in favour of greater European integration has declined. And the latest signs are this trend is continuing.
By 1998, when the Treaty of Amsterdam was ratified, the margin was a six-to-four-vote in favour of acceptance. Last week's Irish Times/MRBI poll showed (when the 27 per cent undecided were excluded) a similar result this time. The survey, however, was taken a week before the referendum, but with the trend of the polls showing a narrowing of the Yes lead as the campaign progressed.
The main opposition to the Nice Treaty has come from Sinn Fein, the Greens, independents and smaller interest groups who have waged a negative campaign, by raising fears for Ireland's EU future if Nice is ratified. One anti-Nice poster bluntly claims: "You will lose power, money, freedom Vote No to the Nice Treaty".
Indeed, the No campaign's most successful tactic has been to raise doubts about what Nice offers and to sow confusion in the minds of the electorate as to what the Treaty provisions may entail. One such leaflet from the Christian Solidarity Party warns of the dangers of "Soviet-style government" as the European Commission takes on the role of "a government for the new European superstate".
In reality, of course, Ireland, in economic terms has never had it so good, thanks in some degree to European financial assistance and support. In relative terms, Ireland is the greatest net beneficiary of EU money, receiving some £22bn in transfers from Brussels over the past three decades. And it is unlikely that Ireland will become a net contributor to the EU budget at least before 2006.
When Ireland joined the EEC, living standards were some two thirds of the Community average; today they have exceeded that level. The country is now experiencing virtual full employment and the old bugbear of emigration has been reversed. The Irish economy has become the EU's shining star, and also something of a role model for the applicant countries from eastern Europe.
But with that economic success has also come increasing public signs of political frustration at government level, not least with some recent interventions from Brussels, notably the pressure to harmonise taxes and the censure of Ireland for an expansionary budget that breached the EU's broad economic policy guidelines.
A year ago the enterprise minister, Mary Harney, struck a Eurosceptic note in a controversial speech arguing that Ireland's success owed more to the American economic model (low taxes, and deregulation) than the European social model. "Our economic success owes more to American liberalism than to European leftism," she claimed. The sceptical tone may have struck a chord with some people, and prompted a more questioning official attitude about the EU's intentions and ambitions. But it did not open a wide-ranging debate about Ireland's role within Europe.
Ireland's place at the heart of Europe is still taken without question. And so a referendum defeat would cause a major upset. Ireland would have voted to deny others the kinds of opportunities it secured on accession in 1972. And that would be difficult to explain or defend, not least to the 12 applicant states.
The Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has said such an outcome would be a "national humiliation" and something the Government would have to seek to mitigate. In that case, it would have no choice but to follow the Danish example, where voters in a referendum rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. When Denmark failed to renegotiate the treaty, it sought and secured clarification and some opt-outs, which were endorsed by the voters in a second referendum.
That is the appalling vista that Mr Ahern hopes to avoid, but which he may have to confront when the results come in on Friday afternoon.
The author is political correspondent of the 'Sunday Independent', DublinReuse content