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Irish PM tells farmers to keep WTO out of EU vote

DUBLIN (Reuters) - Prime Minister Brian Cowen asked Irish farmers on Thursday to keep their grievances about world trade talks out of the debate about Ireland’s referendum on the European Union’s reform treaty on June 12.

Ireland is the only EU state planning a referendum on the treaty, meaning that a “no” vote from one of Europe’s smallest countries could sink the project designed to end years of diplomatic wrangling over reform of the bloc’s institutions.

Ireland’s powerful farming lobby says it has no problem with the Lisbon Treaty that replaces an EU constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005, but is threatening to oppose it if current, unrelated plans for a world trade deal go ahead.

“Let’s keep our eye on the ball,” Cowen told a debate on the treaty in Dublin. “The ball we are playing today and on the 12th of June is the European Union Lisbon reform treaty.”

Cowen’s government agrees with Irish farmers that recent agriculture proposals for a resolution of the much-delayed Doha round of trade talks are unbalanced, but it is worried a “no” vote on June 12 would isolate Ireland within the European Union.

“Farmers don’t see any demons in the Lisbon Treaty,” Seamus O’Brien, spokesman for the Irish Farmers’ Association, told the audience of Irish lawmakers and interest groups.

“But we are full of fear, we’re full of distrust ... in the agriculture industry about the world trade situation,” he said.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was greeted on a visit to Dublin in April by thousands of angry farmers protesting over what they see as a threat from overseas imports to Irish agriculture, especially beef production.

“If you want Irish farmers to support the Lisbon Treaty on the 12th of June, you will have to give the same reassurances to agriculture in relation to WTO,” O’Brien said.

An Irish Farmers Journal/Red C poll last week found 40 percent of farmers expect to support the treaty while 33 percent said they were likely to vote “no”, with 27 percent undecided.

However 78 percent said they were concerned about EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson’s handling of the WTO talks.

Cowen said a rejection of the treaty in Ireland would lead to uncertainty and fragmentation in the EU and it would reduce Ireland’s negotiating power during a forthcoming review of the EU’s massive system of farm subsidies.

A poll in the Irish Times newspaper last week showed 35 percent of Irish voters plan to vote “yes”, up from 26 percent in a January survey. Those who said they would oppose it rose to 18 percent from 10 percent, while 47 percent remained undecided.

Editing by Giles Elgood