DUBLIN — A majority of Ireland's voters are prepared to support the European Union fiscal treaty in a referendum this year, according to two opinion polls published Sunday.
The findings were the first since bailed-out Ireland announced last week it would be the only member of the 17-nation eurozone to subject the treaty to a popular vote. A referendum date has not been announced, but is widely expected in late May or early June.
The poll published in Ireland's Sunday Independent newspaper found 37 percent intended to vote "yes," 26 percent "no," while the rest weren't sure. The survey in the rival Sunday Business Post found 44 percent in favor, 29 percent against and the rest unsure. Both polls involved 1,000 people and had error margins of 3 percentage points.
Analysts cautioned that Ireland's voters in past EU-related referendum campaigns tended to say "yes" before the campaign gained traction, but many in the "don't know" camp hardened into "no" voters as referendum day drew near.
The fiscal treaty seeks to impose new spending rules and limits on euro members to restrict them from borrowing their way into a future financial crisis. Other countries intend to ratify the treaty through parliamentary votes only, but Ireland's constitution requires all EU treaties to receive majority support directly from voters, a risky proposition.
Both of the EU's previous treaties were delayed by initial "no" verdicts in Ireland in 2001 and 2008. While the Irish ultimately cleared passage by voting "yes" in re-staged referendums in 2002 and 2009, EU leaders seeking to take control of the eurozone debt crisis weren't willing to risk a third Irish stumbling block.
The fiscal treaty will come into force once 12 of the 17 eurozone members ratify it, although only in those countries. Previous treaties required unanimous backing to become law in any EU nation.
Given that Ireland cannot block the treaty's ratification, an Irish rejection chiefly would restrict Ireland's own ability to borrow from EU sources in event of any future bailout agreement. The fiscal treaty specifies that any eurozone members that fail to ratify it will be denied access to the European Stability Mechanism, a new €500 billion ($660 billion) firewall being created later this year.
Ireland already has spent two-thirds of its €67.5 billion ($90 billion) credit line negotiated in November 2010 with the EU, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. The loans are designed to cover Ireland's costs until late 2013 when Ireland is supposed to resume normal borrowing on global bond markets, but economists say a second bailout remains in prospect.
Anti-EU campaigners already have plastered Dublin with posters arguing that Ireland can force its international creditors to offer better terms if the Irish reject the treaty.
But a government minister, Joan Burton, argued Sunday that Ireland would be potentially cutting its own throat.
Burton noted that Ireland, a nation of 4.5 million, was spending €50 million ($67 million) more each day than it collects in taxes. She said severe cuts would be required for several more years to reduce Ireland's deficit to acceptable levels — but being shut out of future EU bailout funds would require the government to make even sharper cuts more quickly.
"A 'yes' vote gives us a reasonable guarantee of access to funds albeit under strict supervision by the troika," Burton said, referring to the EU, ECB and IMF.
"A 'no' vote may give the semblance of independence, but it will require Ireland to negotiate emergency funds that will have identical, if not even more onerous, scrutiny provisos," she said. "There is no escape, one way or the other, from fiscal restraint in our present situation."