Kenny to target Irish referendum in late May

Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny is eyeing late May for a referendum to approve December’s European Union-wide fiscal compact — although we may not know the exact date until later this month, per The Irish Times.

Timing is crucial — right now, polls show Irish voters in favor of the treaty, but two months is a long time for opponents to foment opprobrium against a treaty that would place a fiscal straightjacket on national finance ministries by limiting signatories to an annual budget deficit of just 0.5% of nominal GDP.

So the sooner that the referendum is held, it is thought, the better for treaty supporters.  If held in late May, the vote would follow both rounds of the French presidential election, where François Hollande — an avowed opponent of austerity who has called for renegotiation of the terms of the fiscal compact — currently leads polls, as well as tentative Greek legislative elections planned for April.

An outcome that would jeopardize European unity in any of the three could spook European investors.

Although the fiscal compact — not technically an EU treaty after the UK and the Czech Republic opted out — will go into effect with the approval of just twelve countries, Europe will still pay nervous attention to the vote.  The Irish referendum will be the only opportunity for a popular vote on the treaty across the EU, and so a stingingly public defeat would give other nations an excuse to opt out, or at least think twice about the treaty.  Ireland itself, already under the constraints of IMF- and EU-imposed fiscal austerity, is the recipient of bailout money to support its public debt.  An Irish defeat could jeopardize future bailout money and spark an investor crisis throughout the eurozone.

In the last two Irish referenda in the past decade on European treaty matters — on the Nice Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty — Irish voters initially rejected them, only to support the treaties in a second round of voting, following renegotiation to the treaties with fairly cosmetic changes to recognize Irish military neutrality and other Irish concerns.  So the trendline does not necessarily bode well.

Nonetheless, Irish voters will recognize the international and financial gravity of their vote, and Kenny will have the advantage of learning from the mistakes of Fianna Fáil, which led the pro-Nice and pro-Libson efforts.

Irish frustration with the Fianna Fáil-led government in 2008 was a factor in voting intentions in the 2008 Lisbon referendum, but Kenny’s coalition (formed between his center-right Fine Gael party and the more leftist Labor Party) was elected in February 2011 after widespread disappointment with Fianna Fáil’s performance in government in the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and during the onset of the Irish sovereign debt crisis.

Now in opposition, Fianna Fáil will largely join the coalition government in support of the fiscal compact, although leftist republican Sinn Féin is already vocally opposing it.

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