- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

DUBLIN | Ireland’s recession-hit voters have overwhelmingly approved the European Union’s ambitious and long-delayed reform plans, electoral chiefs announced Saturday - 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, which was eight years in the making, will facilitate decisions by majority rather than unanimous votes, name European officials with greater say over foreign policy and give more power to the European Parliament in shaping EU policies.

Poland and the Czech Republic must still approve the treaty before it goes into force, but Ireland was the only holdout where a referendum was required. The Irish 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 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.

Mr. 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 and 51 percent turnout.

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, however.

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,” Mr. 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 euro 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,” Mr. 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.”

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