James G. Neuger, Bloomberg News - DUBLIN - With less than 1% of the European Union's population and just more than 1% of its economy, Ireland has 100% control over the bloc's ambition to become a United States of Europe.
This week, it becomes the only one of the EU's 27 member nations to put the new governing treaty to a direct citizens' vote. Because defeat anywhere will kill the agreement everywhere, it is up to Irish voters to decide whether the alliance will move toward the political unity envisioned by its founding fathers after the Second World War.
The parliaments of 15 EU nations have already approved the treaty and another 11 are expected to do so because their governing majorities also favour it. That leaves the Irish.
A veto in Thursday's referendum would cripple the bloc's long-time effort to parlay its economic might into a stronger voice in world affairs, proponents say.
Opponents point out the treaty is an expanded version of the unpopular constitution defeated in 2001 by the French and Dutch "no" votes. The new version was adopted by EU leaders in Lisbon in December and is now being pushed through various legislatures without voters getting a chance to make their wishes known.
For most of the campaign, polls showed a majority of Irish voters supported the accord. But opposition has been growing, and an Irish Times/ TNS MRBI poll published last Friday gave opponents a lead for the first time, 35% to 30%.
Supporters are concerned about a repeat of 2001, when a last-minute surge of opposition defeated the EU's more limited governing treaty. After a concerted campaign, pro-Europe forces managed to win approval in a rerun of the election a year later.
With gross domestic product of ¤12.8-trillion ($19.8 trillion), the EU is the world's largest economic bloc, with its own central bank, trade and regulatory authority, and close to 100,000 pages of laws that govern a common market from the Atlantic to the Russian border.
Still, the EU remains far less than the federal state envisioned by Jean Monnet, the French cognac salesman turned statesman who expounded the bold European visions of the 1940s and 1950s. The commercial colossus remains a geopolitical midget: EU divisions hastened the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, leaving the U. S. to halt the bloodshed. The bloc splintered when George W. Bush, the U. S. President, invaded Iraq in 2003.
The answer, backers of a higher-profile EU say, is the Lisbon treaty, a 277-page overhaul of the bloc's founding documents that would create the post of president, strengthen the foreign-policy chief and give more power to the democratically elected European Parliament.
Irish supporters of the accord, including Brian Cowen, the Prime Minister, and the leading opposition party, are trying to neutralize claims the treaty would hand too much power to the EU, flood the Irish market with cheap foreign foods, let the EU jack up Ireland's 12.5% business-tax rate, or even drag the country into foreign wars.
Passage of the new EU blueprint would end almost two decades of tinkering with its institutional arrangements, starting with the Maastricht Treaty of 1991 that paved the way for the common currency.
Back then, the bloc was a cluster of a dozen countries rooted in the reconciliation of France and Germany after a more than a century of war, from Napoleon to Hitler.
After expansion in 2004 into former communist nations in eastern Europe, today's EU is closer to the instability of the Caucasus and Middle East, and the economic confidence of its welfare states has been shaken by rising powers such as China and India.
"We're not a little club of 12 that can sit together and discuss things through," said Sara Hagemann, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.
Robert Kagan, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said there is little evidence of a consensus for a more assertive European foreign policy.
"Whatever's happening on treaties, I see very little sign that the major powers and even the minor powers are really willing to cede much authority," he said.
WHAT A YES VOTE COULD MEAN - A huge collective sigh of relief from the 26 national governments which have given the reforms their blessing and would now expect to complete ratification by parliament with few problems. - An end to more than a decade of wrangling about the bloc's structures, and a new blueprint for what treaty backers say will be a stronger, more efficient EU, ready and able to add even more members. - The green light for France, as incoming EU president, to mediate the fight for new jobs created by the treaty: a long-term EU president and a stronger foreign policy chief, with a real diplomatic service.
WHAT A NO VOTE COULD MEAN - A new crisis of confidence in the bloc over its inability to reassure voters and stagnation in Brussels, as the European Commission and other Brusselsbased institutions shy away from bold new initiatives. - New calls for a hard core of integration-minded states to press ahead without the laggards. - Britain and others deciding to suspend parliamentary ratification, leaving the EU to soldier on with its cumbersome decision-making system, a dysfunctional foreign policy apparatus and an inefficient rotating presidency. - A second referendum in Ireland to try and get a "Yes" out of Irish voters.
Ireland to decide fate of EU treaty
Those opposing accord lead in recent poll