THE extent to which staunchly "pro-unity" sentiment is losing ground in Europe will be gauged Thursday when the Irish go to the polls.
Just two weeks after Danish voters rejected the European Community's Maastricht Treaty - designed to make a more unified economic and political power of the EC - Ireland holds its own referendum on the subject.
Whereas Denmark has long been seen as the EC member most ambivalent about Europe's construction, Ireland has always been considered enthusiastic about European unity.
Irish supporters of Maastricht say their country has an opportunity to silence doubts about public enthusiasm for European union that have blossomed across the EC since the Danish vote.
Opponents, however, say an Irish "no" would stop Maastricht cold and force EC leaders to return to the drawing boards, a move they have so far ruled out.
"I am not anti-Europe, and the Irish people are not talking about `leaving' Europe any more than the Danes were," says Michael Higgins, a Labor Party member of the Irish Parliament and perhaps the country's best-known Maastricht critic. "What I am opposed to is the vision of Europe set out in this particular treaty."
The anti-Maastricht forces focus on national sovereignty and the country's historic neutrality as well as the tough economic measures needed to implement the treaty goal of a single EC currency.
Added to those two themes is the country's volatile abortion debate, which after a recent twist has ended up putting both anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates in the anti-Maastricht column.
Just a month ago, there wasn't a doubt among Irish leaders that their people would endorse the Maastricht Treaty, named for the Dutch town where EC leaders completed negotiations in December. But now those same leaders are nervous: Polls that earlier in the spring showed endorsement leading as much as 6 to 1 now show 2 to 1.
Yet as Mr. Higgins suggests, Irish resistance to the kind of economic and political integration envisioned in Maastricht is no indication of hostility to the island nation's membership in the EC.
Unlike Denmark, a wealthy country and a net contributor to Community coffers, Ireland is one of the EC's "poor four" - along with Spain, Portugal, and Greece - benefiting hugely from EC development and assistance programs.
"If the referendum carries, it will be because of a perception of the EC as being good for the economy," says Terence Baker, senior research officer at the Economic and Social Policy Research Institute in Dublin. "While much of the population is still not aware of just what this treaty entails, there is an overriding feeling that the [EC] has been good for Ireland."
Direct aid from the EC to Ireland totals about $2.5 billion a year, or about 7 percent of gross domestic product, according to Mr. Baker. Most of that money is for farm income assistance and infrastructure development. Membership also has given Ireland access to EC markets and has made it attractive to foreign investors looking for a foothold in the Community.
"There is definitely a fear that a `no' might put at risk what we've already got," says Baker. It's a concern the government is playing on: Prime Minister Albert Reynolds spices pro-Maastricht speeches with statements like, "We cannot afford the luxury of a `no' vote."
Also working against Maastricht in Ireland is the reluctance of several larger EC members to accept the higher spending the treaty calls for. During negotiations the concept of a "cohesion fund" was approved to help poorer countries offset the anticipated costs of Maastricht's monetary measures, but now "cohesion" is less popular as countries such as Germany face tight domestic budgets. "The precision of the monetary side of the treaty contrasts unfavorably with the vagueness of the cohesion side," says Higgins. "Why should we go blindly into something that seems certain to add to our unemployment?"
As for the treaty's political aspects, the historically neutral Irish are increasingly wary that the treaty could eventually oblige them to participate in a European army.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that both extremes of the abortion issue ended up against Maastricht. Originally, Ireland's anti-abortion lobby demanded - and got - a special protocol in the treaty saying it would not affect an Irish ban on abortion. But since then the Irish Supreme Court ruled in a highly publicized case that a young rape victim could travel to Britain for an abortion. "Now those who insisted on having the protocol are opposed to it," says Baker, "because they fear it strengthens the co urt's interpretation."
Yet pro-choice supporters rail against Maastricht as well, because they see the protocol reinforcing Ireland's ban on travel by women seeking an abortion in another EC country. For the pro-choice lobby, Maastricht (and its protocol) is seen as a step backward from Europe, because for Ireland it nullifies a basic freedom of the EC's single market set to take effect in January of next year - the free movement of people.