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Irish voters shoot down EU treaty

The proposal would create more authority United Europe idea at issue

Supporters of the ‘No Vote’ celebrated yesterday at the Royal Dublin Society in Dublin after the Lisbon Treaty was rejected.
Supporters of the ‘No Vote’ celebrated yesterday at the Royal Dublin Society in Dublin after the Lisbon Treaty was rejected. (Paul McErlane/AFP/Getty Images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post / June 14, 2008

DUBLIN - Irish voters resoundingly rejected a treaty designed to modernize the European Union, the second time in three years that European voters have shot down a complex proposal to create more authority and world influence at the bloc's Brussels headquarters.

By defeating the Lisbon Treaty by 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent in a national referendum, fewer than a million Irish voters scuttled a document that would have deeply affected the lives of nearly 500 million Europeans in the 27 member nations.

Justice Minister Brian Lenihan said the results announced yesterday marked "a very sad day for the country and for Europe." Prime Minister Brian Cowen said the vote "does bring about considerable uncertainty and a difficult situation," adding: "There is no quick fix."

But jubilant opponents of the treaty called it a David-and-Goliath victory for common people, skeptical of the EU's increasing influence on their lives, over an enthusiastically pro-Brussels European political establishment.

"It is a great day for Irish democracy," said Declan Ganley, a businessman who led the antitreaty campaign. "This is democracy in action . . . and Europe needs to listen to the voice of the people."

The results of Thursday's referendum call into question the vision of a united Europe that arose after World War II and has driven the growth of the bloc. "People are wondering if the EU really is capable of having a unified position," said Clara O'Donnell, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform, a London think tank. "This is a big blow to the confidence of the EU."

Ireland, by a quirk of its constitution, was the only European nation to hold a popular referendum on the treaty, which supporters - including almost all Irish political and business leaders - said would streamline the EU, speed decision-making, and give it greater influence in world affairs.

In all 26 other nations, the decision is made by the government; 18 have already ratified the treaty and the rest are widely expected to follow.

Irish backers of the treaty said that Ireland should support the EU because European aid had helped transform the country from a poor, farming backwater into a prosperous "Celtic Tiger" thriving on high-tech industry.

That rang true with voters such as Brendan Clinton, 54, a Dublin builder. "At the end of the day, we have to go along with Europe, because we've gotten a lot out of it," he said.

But the feisty "No" campaign, which portrayed the treaty as a power grab by Brussels that would weaken Ireland, argued that the treaty was being imposed on people by European "elites," and that Ireland was the only country standing up to them.

"This is a very clear and loud voice that has been sent yet again by citizens of Europe rejecting the anti-democratic nature of Brussels governance that has to change," Ganley told reporters.

European analysts said it is unclear what will happen now. Many said Brussels had no "Plan B," because the Lisbon Treaty was already a Plan B. It was essentially a modified version of a proposed European constitution that was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, then withdrawn. "This is the worse nightmare scenario, what everyone was trying to avoid," said O'Donnell. "We don't know the next step. People are depressed and wondering what to do."

O'Donnell said there will be "minimal impact on the daily lives of citizens" because of the rejection. She and others said the EU will continue operating with its current rules, which they called increasingly inadequate to run a union that has added 12 new member countries in the past four years. In her view, it is possible that the other member countries will finish ratifying the treaty, then figure out how to deal with the Ireland problem. When Irish voters rejected a treaty regarding EU expansion in 2001, officials simply scheduled another vote the following year, which resulted in adoption of the treaty.

A second possibility, she suggested, is that the EU will declare the treaty dead and start over. Future changes might have to be done step by step, rather than in one sweeping document, she said.

The treaty would have created a full-time EU president and a stronger foreign minister to represent the bloc with a strong and consistent voice. It would have streamlined the legislative process and given member nations more of a say in proposing legislation.

Critics, including the Sinn Fein political party, argued that the treaty would have undermined Ireland's traditional neutrality, reduced its influence at the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, and forced it to eliminate corporate tax incentives that attracted huge foreign investment. Supporters said those arguments were simply false.

In the end, many voters seemed confused by all the back and forth. In interviews, many said they rejected the nearly-300-page document because they didn't understand the mostly technical changes to the EU bureaucracy. "I voted no because I don't have a clue what's in it," said Bernie Kiernan, 48, an elder-care worker.

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