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Barroso accused of buying 'Yes' votes for Lisbon Treaty

The newly re-elected President of the European Commission took a calculated political risk in Ireland this weekend.

Ignoring warnings from 'No' campaigners not to interfere in the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Jose Manuel Barroso flew to Limerick to muster the troops battling for a "Yes" vote.

Not only that, Mr Barroso used the occasion - cynically, say eurosceptics - to announce a £13.5 million present from the EU budget to help retrain more than 2.500 Irish workers sacked when US computer giant Dell decided to shift its entire production to Poland, where labour costs are lower. More than 800 extra Irish jobs were lost at companies supplying Dell.

Look, Mr Barroso was saying, this is what EU membership can do for you: this is what Brussels does to support its member states: do you want to turn your back on this?

The political risk he ran was that the vigorous "No" campaign would succeed in portraying the move as a blatant bid by eurocrats to buy "Yes" votes less than two weeks before the referendum, to keep Ireland in thrall to the continuing federalist plot.

Last year's first Irish referendum "No" vote was a disaster for Mr Barroso, and a shock to the system in a country whose economic fortunes had - until the global meltdown - been completely turned round by 35 years of EU membership.

A "No" campaign characterised by businessman Declan Ganley's dynamic and credible campaigning performance ran rings around a complacent Irish government which wrongly believed that the Irish public's default position on the EU was still supportive.

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Last year, the Irish government resisted high-profile campaigning by senior eurocrats and Commissioners on Irish soil, arguing it could be counter-productive. In the end the government lost the case on its own.

This year, Commissioners, senior Irish officials, and now the Commission president himself, have piled in, unconvinced that Premier Brian Cowen can pull off a "Yes" vote this time.

The reception on the doorstep and at public meetings has often been hostile: Mr Cowen's popularity rating is low, and the Irish economy shows no sign of an upswing.

Separating the EU issue from domestic politics has become almost impossible, and eurocrats fear the propaganda fight for the Treaty, will be lost once more.

A poll last week showed 62% support for the Treaty this time - but a poll just before the last "No" also forecast a "Yes" majority by exactly the same margin.

Until last week, "Yes" campaigners were grateful that Mr Ganley was not in the picture, after his Libertas party was trounced in the June euro-elections.

But he is back, with less than a fortnight of campaigning to go.

The Lisbon Treaty would bring in more majority voting in Europe, and more streamlined decision-making to avoid gridlock as the Union expands to 27 and possibly more member states. More "fat cats" too - a "President of Europe" and a reinforced role of foreign policy supremo, to wave the EU flag on the world stage.

But opponents say Lisbon is just an excuse to push the federal agenda, and that there has been no sign of the gridlock the "Yes" campaigners have predicted.

The real problem for EU supporters has been vigorous and effective campaigning against a Treaty which, its opponents insist, will deliver more power to Brussels, and erode Irish national sovereignty.

A big headache has been the impossibility of breaking the link between the EU issue and Mr Cowen's own lack of popularity and the country's grim economy.

Mr Barroso rolled into Limerick yesterday not only offering a massive and timely aid package to give jobs a boost, but insisting that European solidarity holds the key to Ireland's economic woes.

The millions in aid to help workers hit by Dell's decision to move to Poland might be seen as an ace card in the referendum campaign.

But one EU official summed up the less than optimistic mood in the "Yes" camp by commenting: "No doubt the 'No' campaign, which has already blamed the EU for the economic mess, will now claim it's the EU's fault that Dell are moving from Ireland to Poland in the first place."

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