DUBLIN — Ireland’s recession-hit voters have overwhelmingly approved the European Union’s ambitious and long-delayed reform plans, electoral chiefs announced Saturday in a referendum result greeted with wild cheers in Dublin — and nervous sighs of relief in Brussels.
Ireland had been the primary obstacle to ratifying the EU Lisbon Treaty, a mammoth agreement designed to modernize and strengthen the 27-nation bloc’s institutions and decision-making powers in line with its near-doubling in size since 2004. The treaty will make it easier to take decisions by majority rather than unanimous votes, and give a bigger say to national parliaments and the European Parliament in shaping EU policies.
The Irish — the only EU citizens voting directly for a complex, impenetrably legal document that has been eight years in the making — stunned Brussels last year with a surprise rejection fueled by fears that an emboldened EU would force neutral Ireland to raise its business taxes, join a European army and legalize abortion.
Ireland staged a second vote Friday after winning legal assurances from EU chiefs that Brussels would not interfere in any of those areas, nor take away Ireland’s guaranteed ministerial seat on the European Commission.
“We as a nation have taken a decisive step for a stronger, fairer and better Ireland, and a stronger, fairer and better Europe,” Prime Minister Brian Cowen told reporters outside his central Dublin office.
Cowen — whose government won despite suffering record-low popularity amid Ireland’s worst economic crisis since the 1930s — thanked his European partners for addressing why most Irish voted no last time.
He said EU chiefs “listened to the people of Ireland and acted in the spirit of partnership and mutual respect that defines the European Union. That helped us to secure the vital guarantees that made today’s victory possible.”
In the Dublin Castle referendum center, electoral chiefs announced the treaty’s approval on a 67.1 percent “yes” vote on a relatively strong 58 percent turnout. Pro-treaty campaigners from the government and chief opposition parties alike hooted and hollered, waving placards saying “We’re Better Together” and simply “YES.”
Ireland in 2008 rejected the treaty with a 53.4 percent “no” vote on 51 percent turnout.
The treaty still requires signatures from the Euro-skeptic heads of state of Poland and the Czech Republic, where national parliaments already have approved the treaty. But the EU expects soon to appoint a new 27-member commission — and new posts of president and foreign minister to project the EU’s policies more forcefully on the world stage. New voting rules won’t take effect until 2014 at the earliest.
The EU’s senior diplomat in Washington, former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, called the referendum victory “a huge relief.”
“Now the way is clear to get on with the real work of restoring the lost dynamism of the shared economy of Europe and Ireland,” Bruton said.
The fringe anti-EU groups that triumphed in 2008 attributed this week’s stunning U-turn to the rapid unraveling of Ireland’s long-booming economy.
Over the past year Ireland’s debt has soared and unemployment doubled, and its overstretched banks could fail without a planned 54 billion ($80 billion) bailout being underwritten by the European Central Bank.
“The ‘yes’ campaign skillfully played to people’s economic fears. They said ‘no’ leads to ruin, and ‘yes’ to recovery,” said Patricia McKenna, leader of a left-wing pressure group called the People’s Movement that opposes EU integration.
Expressions of joy and relief flooded in from European capitals, particularly neighboring Britain, where Prime Minister Gordon Brown has resisted right-wing demands to subject the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum there, too.
“The treaty is good for the UK and good for Europe,” Brown said in London. “We can now work together to focus on the issues that matter most to Europeans: a sustained economic recovery, security, tackling global poverty, and action on climate change.”
European Commission leader Jose Manuel Barroso said in Brussels he was “extremely happy” about Ireland’s “overwhelming decision after such lengthy and careful deliberation.”
“Ireland has recognized the role that the European Union has played in responding to the economic crisis,” said Barroso, who visited Ireland during its treaty campaign to unveil nearly 15 million ($25 million) in back-to-work aid for laid-off Dell Computer workers in Limerick.
In Stockholm, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said the pro-treaty verdict “has been a long journey.”
The ease of the “yes” victory — many districts reported vote swings of more than 20 percent away from the “no” camp — surprised most analysts, who had expected a much closer result.
One of the most prominent treaty opponents, Irish businessman Declan Ganley, credited Cowen with leading “a phenomenal campaign.”
Ganley said most voters still opposed the EU’s lack of democratic accountability and resented being forced to vote twice. But he said voters didn’t feel they could afford to alienate European partners at a time when Ireland has become so economically vulnerable and dependent on Brussels’ financial support.
“I’m surprised how big the ‘yes’ vote is. It just shows how scared people are,” said Ganley, whose anti-EU Libertas movement plastered Dublin with posters depicting a tearful girl beneath mottos questioning whether other Europeans even had functioning democracies.
While virtually all Irish political parties backed the treaty, anti-EU campaigners from the left and right fringes sought to maximize anti-EU passions with a wide range of claims that the government branded blatant lies. They contended that an empowered Brussels would encourage immigration, slash its minimum wage, and legalize abortion and euthanasia.
A second Irish rebuff would have killed the treaty and built pressure to chart another way forward that would not be subject to another Irish veto. One divisive alternative would have been a “two-speed Europe” in which a core of like-minded nations would move ahead of naysayers like Ireland.