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Energy

Irish EU referendum chances "very fragile" -Sutherland

BRUSSELS, June 11 (Reuters) - A senior Irish political and business leader said on Wednesday the prospects for Thursday’s referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon reform treaty were “very fragile” and the scale of opposition was mystifying.

The fate of a treaty designed to streamline the institutions of the 27-nation bloc lies in the hands of just over three million Irish voters, less than one percent of the EU’s 490 million population.

Peter Sutherland, a former Irish attorney-general, European commissioner and World Trade Organisation chief, said the “No” campaign had been used to register protests on a range of issues unrelated to the treaty.

"The Irish situation is very fragile and I can't give a clear prognosis," Sutherland, who is chairman of British oil major BP BP.L, told the European Policy Centre think-tank.

“I hope that the correct result will prevail and would be horrified if it were to be otherwise.”

The treaty would give the EU a long-term president of the European Council, a stronger foreign policy chief with a real diplomatic service, a more democratic decision making system and more say for national and European parliaments.

Two opinion polls taken last week showed the “No” camp strongly gaining ground, with one suggesting opponents of the treaty had taken the lead over supporters.

While Ireland observed a traditional day of reflection without campaigning before Thursday’s vote, Prime Minister Brian Cowen wrote in a Polish newspaper that a “Yes” vote was in his country’s vital interest.

“For 35 years the EU supported our development, ensured our voice was stronger in the world and invested in our future. It deserves not to be demonised,” Cowen wrote in the daily Dziennik, according to the Polish translation of the text.

“YOUR PROBLEM, IRELAND”

Sutherland said rejectionists had been helped by a supreme court ruling interpreted as requiring public media to give the “No” campaign equal broadcasting time -- even though all major political parties, business and farming organisations and trade unions were in favour of the treaty.

If Ireland voted “No”, he added, it would either kill the treaty off, or prompt other EU states to say: “This is not our problem, this your problem, Ireland, and you should now try to find a way of proceeeding, or of letting us proceed”.

Amending the treaty would be impossible, partly because the objections raised were so diverse and unrelated, but also because the text itself re-works the EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 referendums.

EU leaders have appealed to the Irish to vote “Yes” in their own economic and political interest, but external intervention has risked provoking a backlash among the fiercely independent Irish, analysts say.

Irish Health Minister Mary Harney urged French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on Tuesday to refrain from unhelpful comments after he said Ireland had “counted greatly on European money” and would be the first victim of a “No” vote.

One of the leading left-wing French campaigners against the defunct constitution urged the Irish on Wednesday to vote “No”, saying it would force the political establishment to make the EU less free-marketeering and more socially responsive.

“If we paralyse the machine, we will force the elites to ask why the people don’t want their wonderful liberal European integration,” Jean-Luc Melenchon told RTL radio. “That will force them to turn back and organise European democracy differently.” (Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau in Paris and Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw; Editing by Catherine Evans)

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