Ireland Backs Treaty to Streamline E.U.
By ERIC PFANNER and SARAH LYALL
Published: October 3, 2009
DUBLIN — They rejected it only 16 months ago. But in a stunning about-face spurred by economic turmoil, Ireland’s voters have overwhelmingly approved a far-reaching treaty meant to consolidate the power of the European Union and reorganize the way it does business, the government announced Saturday.
Ireland’s approval of the pact, known as the Lisbon Treaty, removes one of the biggest stumbling blocks to its eventual enactment by Europe as a whole. The treaty would give Europe a more powerful foreign policy chief and its first full-time president, and strengthen the role of the European Parliament; it is also meant to more clearly delineate the relationship between national legislatures and Europe.
“My message today is very simple: Thank you, Ireland,” said José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, in Brussels. “Ireland has given Europe a new chance.”
Ireland went to the polls on Friday. In the final count issued Saturday afternoon, yes votes outnumbered the no votes about two to one.
Signed by European leaders in 2007, the Lisbon Treaty is the result of years of painstaking negotiations among countries trying to retain their national identities and hang on to power while ceding some control to an ever more integrated Europe. A reflection of the European Union’s rapid expansion in the past five years, to 27 members from 15, the treaty must be adopted by all members to take force. Now only two countries are left: Poland, whose approval is all but assured, and the Czech Republic, where the situation is more uncertain.
The lopsidedness of the vote in Ireland reflects both the success of a strong pro-treaty campaign, backed by much of Ireland’s business and political establishment, and Ireland’s dire economic situation.
Ireland joined what was then the European Community in 1973. Buoyed by European money, it grew to become one of Europe’s success stories, its peat bogs and grazing pastures giving way to gleaming semiconductor plants and suburbs full of McMansions. But in the past 18 months, the economy has collapsed, suffering from soaring unemployment and one of the worst real-estate busts in the world.
With the economy kept from imploding largely because of European Union support, in the form of liquidity from the European Central Bank, many voters apparently decided that this was not a good time to be scorning their European neighbors.
“Ireland has sent a very strong signal to the governments and the boardrooms of the world that it is fully engaged in Europe,” said Brigid Laffan, professor of European politics at University College Dublin.
A no vote by Ireland would have buried the Lisbon Treaty for good, creating institutional chaos in Brussels. Analysts say it would have killed any remaining momentum for further enlargement of the bloc, beyond Croatia, which is already in advanced negotiations, and Iceland, whose entry is considered a done deal once it gets its economy mended.
Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who has struggled to govern in the face of increasingly dire economic news, said that the vote signaled “a good day for Ireland and a good day for Europe.”
Ireland’s Constitution required that the treaty be put to a direct national vote; the other European countries have accepted it by votes of their legislatures and executives. Ireland’s rejection of the treaty last summer reflected the deep suspicion many Europeans harbor toward Europe’s governing institutions, which are seen by many as remote, bureaucratic and undemocratic.
The 2008 vote threw Europe into chaos, infuriating Europeans who felt Ireland should be more grateful for European support. Determined that their plans would not be derailed, supporters of the treaty brought it back for a second vote.
The government also gained assurances from European leaders that Ireland would to be able to set its own taxes, keep its anti-abortion laws, remain militarily neutral and retain its seat on the European Commission.
The new vote was a bitter blow to the no side, which waged a fierce campaign aimed at capitalizing on fears that Ireland would lose its sovereignty to an increasingly powerful and remote Europe.
“E.U. elites will be popping the Champagne and slapping each other on the back for managing to bully Ireland into reversing its first verdict on this undemocratic treaty,” Lorraine Mullally, director of Open Europe, a group that campaigns against expanding the European Union’s power, said in a statement.
Hugo Brady, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a research center in London, said in an interview that the treaty’s enactment will raise a new round of squabbling. “Like master contortionists, they’ve twisted themselves into every possible shape to get this thing passed,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to enter this state of nirvana.”
Now that Ireland has agreed to the treaty, Poland is almost certainly set to follow suit. But in the Czech Republic, the pact is being reviewed by the country’s constitutional court, and the president, Vaclav Klaus, is not a supporter.
In Britain, David Cameron, the Conservative leader, who is widely expected to be the next prime minister after elections that by law must be called sometime before next June, has vowed that if he takes power and the treaty has not yet been enacted, he will put it to a referendum.
Eric Pfanner reported from Dublin, and Sarah Lyall from London. Stephen Castle contributed reporting from London.