Ireland Shoots Down Plan for a More Unified E.U.

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 14, 2008

DUBLIN, June 13 -- 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 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent in a national referendum Thursday, 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 Friday 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 E.U.'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 anti-treaty campaign. "This is democracy in action . . . and Europe needs to listen to the voice of the people."

The Irish vote calls 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 E.U. 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 E.U."

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 E.U., 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 E.U. 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.

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