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EU treaty in peril as Ireland counts votes

DUBLIN (Reuters) - The fate of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty was in peril on Friday, with results due from an Irish referendum after a weak turnout left the outcome in doubt.

Irish voters were the only citizens in the 27-member bloc to be given the chance to vote in a referendum on the treaty, which replaces a rejected European Union constitution.

“It’s knife-edge stuff,” an Irish governing party source said, acknowledging that authorities had counted on a higher turnout. “We’re just not sure if we’ve done enough or not.”

The entire project could be doomed if Irish voters reject it. European governments say there is no “plan B”.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said in a television interview late on Thursday: “If the Irish people decide to reject the treaty of Lisbon, naturally, there will be no treaty of Lisbon.”

The treaty, intended to make the EU stronger and more effective, has the backing of all the main political parties in a country that has prospered from its membership of the bloc.

The last opinion poll published days before the vote showed the “yes” camp narrowly in the lead, and bookmakers strongly favoured the treaty to pass. But weak turnout was widely seen as boosting the “no” camp, whose backers hold strong views.

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Ballot counting starts on Friday at 9 a.m., with “tallymen” hired by political parties to observe the count likely to give the first indications of the result in late morning. The final result will come late in the afternoon.

Public broadcaster RTE estimated turnout had totalled about 42 percent, almost exactly the minimum that pollsters had said the “yes” camp needed in order to win.

“If it gets to 45 percent, we’ll be doing very well,” the governing party source said.

The last time Ireland held European referendums in 2001, the Nice treaty failed in a first vote with 35 percent turnout, but passed in a second vote with turnout at 49 percent.

“The ‘yes’ campaign believe they have this in the bag,” said Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the EU parliament from the nationalist Sinn Fein party which opposes the treaty. “It will depend on turnout. I think it will be a close call.”

The approval of all member states is required to ratify the treaty, which replaces a constitution abandoned after it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

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This time all other EU countries have avoided holding popular votes. Ireland’s constitution requires a referendum on any amendments, giving make-or-break power to voters in a nation with less than 1 percent of the EU’s 490 million population.

The treaty envisages a long-term president of the European Council of EU leaders, a stronger foreign policy chief and a mutual defence pact, and changes the rules for decision making.

Fourteen countries have already ratified the treaty in their national parliaments. The treaty is due to come into force on January 1 if all nations ratify it.

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(Writing by Paul Hoskins and Peter Graff; editing by Andrew Roche)

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