Irish Ayes on Lisbon Treaty Have Europe Smiling

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Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Votes are counted for the EU Lisbon Treaty referendum at the Royal Dublin Society on October 3, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland.

Last year, Ireland cast a shadow over the future of the European Union in a referendum vote that rejected a treaty to reform the Union's decision making, but on Saturday, Irish voters reversed that decision. To the delight of Ireland's business and political establishment, results from a new referendum saw 67% of Irish voters approve the Lisbon treaty.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen said he was delighted by the "decisive" vote. "Today we have done the right thing for our own future and the future of our children," he said. Cowen's relief was echoed across the whole of the E.U., where leaders had been watching the result as closely as the Irish. (The Union operates by consensus, meaning major policy questions have to be approved by all 27 member states.) "I am really glad with the result," said European Commission President José Manuel Barroso. "The Irish people have spoken. They have said a resounding yes to Europe."

"You can really feel a collective sigh of relief in Brussels," says Julia De Clerck-Sachsse, research fellow at the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) think-tank. "A 'No' would not only have been the end of the Lisbon Treaty, but the end of any major E.U. reforms."

The Lisbon Treaty includes major reforms in the way the E.U. is run, changing its voting and decision-making procedures to avoid institutional gridlock. Supporters of the treaty say it improves the Union's capacity to deal with 21st century challenges such as the economic crisis, climate change, energy security, cross-border trafficking and crime. It also establishes a full-time president for the Union, gives new powers to the European Parliament, and creates a European diplomatic service.

Selling the reforms has been difficult, even in a country as traditionally pro-European as Ireland, which has received an estimated $87 billion in E.U. funds since joining the union in 1973. Ireland represents less than 1% of the Union's half-billion total population, but it is the only member state to have asked its electorate to vote on the treaty. In June of last year, voters had rejected the document by a margin of 53% to 47%

Since then, the Irish government secured quasi-legal guarantees on questions of neutrality, abortion laws and Irish tax rates, issues that had raised disquiet among Irish voters. The Yes campaign had also worked harder to explain the treaty, while well-known businessmen, such as Michael O'Leary of Ryanair and Jim O'Hara, boss of Intel Ireland, have added their voices in support.

But for most voters, the biggest difference over the past 16 months has been the global economic crisis, which has hit Ireland particularly hard and ended the era of the 'Celtic Tiger'. Economic uncertainty helped persuade many voters that Europe offers a safe haven.

"A 'Yes' makes sense for the economy," said engineering student Darren Atkins, 20, in Dublin. "When I see companies like Intel and Ryanair supporting the treaty, it makes me think that I should do the same." Pre-school teacher Isabel Costello, 54, said the downturn made the choice clearer. "These are difficult times for Ireland," she says. "But I think we're in a stronger position as part of the E.U. I'm not sure a small country like ours could survive on its own in the current climate."

Still, the treaty is not yet cleared for adoption. Poland's President Lech Kaczynski has refused to sign it until the Irish vote, but is now expected to do so over the next few days. But the biggest potential obstacle is the Czech Republic. Last week, a group of senators there filed a challenge at the country's constitutional court claiming the Lisbon Treaty would violate the Czech constitution by paving the way for a European superstate. Previous complaints to the court have been thrown out, but some fear it could take up to six months before the court rules.

Even if the Czech court does clear the treaty, President Vaclav Klaus, an avowed opponent of the document, could delay signing. If the delays drag on until spring next year, it could reopen the process in the United Kingdom: the British Conservatives — expected to win a general election next Spring — have promised to call a British referendum on Lisbon if it is not fully ratified by the time they come to power.

In the meantime, work will begin on filling the new posts created by Lisbon. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the front-runner to become the E.U.'s first full-time president, and could be named within weeks. Other positions include a stronger foreign policy chief, known as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs. The E.U. will also work on creating an E.U. diplomatic corps, or European External Action Service.

But none of these new positions and structures will begin operating until the treaty is finally ratified. Still, for now, officials in Dublin, Brussels and other European capitals who have worked so long and hard on the treaty will be raising their glasses to a hearty Irish Aye.