Ireland voters strongly approve European fiscal treaty

Europe’s new fiscal treaty won a decisive and much-needed victory in Ireland in a closely watched referendum, a rare reprieve for the region’s leaders from the string of recent blows to the crisis-hit euro zone.

Final results announced Friday showed 60.3 percent of voters casting ballots in favor of the treaty, with 39.7 percent of voters against. Turnout, however, was relatively low, with roughly half of Ireland’s 3.1 million voters staying home.

“Europe badly needs a success story,” Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny told reporters in Dublin after the results were confirmed. “Ireland can be that success story.”

The referendum is being seen as a test of the will in Europe to surrender some national rights in the name of binding the economies of the euro zone more closely together. Nations linked by the new treaty would need to advise E.U. officials before issuing new debt, and would face tough fines and directives to make fresh budget cuts if they exceed strict deficit limits.

The fiscally conservative Germans, in particular, have called for ratification of the treaty, inked in January, essential to ending years of overspending and overborrowing by their profligate neighbors. The pact’s passage, they have argued, would also be necessary before they will begin to consider the kind of radical cures for the crisis being called for now by a host of major figures, including Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank.

Among those cures are direct European aid for the region’s ailing banks, the issuance of collective debt through eurobonds that would act as a sort of U.S. Treasury bond for Europe, and a region-wide bank-deposit insurance program similar to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The streets of Dublin this week were lined with placards exhorting the Irish to vote yes or no. Opponents of the treaty had argued that the budget cuts forced on this nation by the terms of its $113 billion international bailout have already crippled its economy and that pledging years more through the treaty would only make things worse. Led by Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, opponents also called the treaty a dangerous forfeiture of national sovereignty that would see the European Union become Ireland’s fiscal master.

But many Irish, like Pauline McCarthy, a 65-year-old mother of three who voted Thursday at a polling station in north Dublin, said the choice boiled down to one issue: stability. In a country now being propped up by the grace of a lifeline from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, the Irish government has forcefully argued that a rejection would panic investors and cut off any chance of future E.U. bailouts.

“We need stability, we need our spending to be under control for once, and the E.U. will be watching how the money is spent,” she said. “Ireland has hugely benefited by being a part of the E.U.; we wouldn’t have motorways or other things if it weren’t for them. The point now is, enough with the waste, and I think the treaty will be a good thing.”

Under Irish law, the ceding of fresh powers to the European Union requires a referendum, making Ireland the only nation in the 17-country euro zone to hold a vote on the treaty. Most of the other signer nations require only parliamentary approval for ratification.

There were fears across Europe that the Irish would reject the treaty in the referendum, something voters here have done twice on previous regional pacts. But an Irish rejection would not have killed the pact, which only needs 12 of the 17 nations that share the euro in order to come into effect.

But it would have dealt it a symbolic blow, potentially complicating its ratification in other nations. Thus far, only four nations — Greece, Portugal, Slovenia and Cyprus — have fully ratified it. A yes vote in Dublin, observers say, could offer the treaty a boost of momentum at a time when even German Chancellor Angela Merkel is having a tough time securing its passage through the German Parliament. France’s new president, Francois Hollande, is also calling for its renegotiation to add new pledges aimed at boosting growth.

Although many Dubliners professed little interest in — or comprehension of — the complicated treaty, others were bitterly divided over it. Many saw it as a proxy vote on the current government, which is facing deep resentment for a host of higher taxes and benefit cuts made at the behest of E.U. officials.

At a polling station near Glasnevin Cemetery, the resting place of fallen heroes from the 1916 uprising against British rule, voter Barry Oglesby said he felt uncomfortable with the notion of surrendering too much power to Brussels, the E.U. administrative capital.

“I know we have to claw our way back and make sacrifices, but we should be determining our own fate,” said Oglesby, a 34-year-old personal trainer. “We shouldn’t limit ourselves to what they say we are allowed to do.”

A good segment of the Irish who voted in favor of the treaty, it appeared, were doing so while holding their noses. Few seemed to wholly embrace the idea of surrendering more power to Brussels, and several expressed caution at the rise of fiscally conservative Germany, which, due to its economic might in hard times, is increasingly emerging as the big boy on the block in Europe.

“With the stroke of a pen, rather than the firing of a bullet, the Germans are ruling us now,” said Edward Daly, a taxi driver who voted Thursday in favor of the treaty. “We’ve become a puppet, and they are the puppeteers, and yet what choice do we have but to accept it?”

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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