Ireland Votes for A Stronger E.U.

Supporters of the Lisbon Treaty react after the results of the voting are announced in Dublin Castle. The charter would strengthen the E.U.'s clout.
Supporters of the Lisbon Treaty react after the results of the voting are announced in Dublin Castle. The charter would strengthen the E.U.'s clout. (By Peter Morrison -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 4, 2009

LONDON, Oct. 3 -- Henry Kissinger once famously asked, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" The answer, thanks to the Irish, may soon be the president of Europe.

Irish voters have removed the single greatest barrier to regionwide adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, which would further integrate the European Union -- the world's largest political and economic alliance encompassing almost 500 million people in 27 countries. According to official results of a referendum released Saturday, 67 percent of voters supported the charter.

The treaty would, among other things, create a full-time E.U. president and secretary of state, more closely linking the region's foreign policies and affording the alliance new clout on the world stage.

Irish voters rejected the treaty in a vote last year. But reassured that the European Union would not demand changes to its antiabortion laws or military neutrality, Ireland switched gears in a second referendum Friday.

"The Irish people have spoken with a clear and resounding voice," Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who has led the charge for the treaty's approval, said in a statement to reporters in Dublin. "It is a good day for Ireland, and a good day for Europe."

The results illustrate how the global financial crisis has forced hard-hit nations such as Ireland to find new value in their E.U. membership, reenergizing a project in cross-border governance that some said would never work.

The about-face, analysts say, appeared to be driven at least in part by fear.

Ireland is experiencing one of the worst economic downturns in the industrialized world after an unprecedented boom. It now views the E.U. as a lifeline to larger countries with more stable economies, including Germany and France. A repeat of a no vote, many Irish believed, would have reduced their influence with European partners at precisely the time when their investment, grants and loans are needed most, analysts said.

"The country is in dire straits, and we will be isolated politically if we vote no," said Jean Kennedy, 49, an auctioneer who voted Friday in south Dublin.

Analysts note that the treaty would not drastically change European politics. It would fortify the power of the European Parliament on regional issues including security, agriculture and transportation, but E.U. nations would largely remain autonomous on the vast majority of issues.

Instead, many are pointing to the creation of a new leadership structure and the streamlining of E.U. decision-making, and its corps of diplomats and bureaucrats overseas, as the most important outcome of a ratified treaty.

The full-time E.U. president, to be elected by Europe's leaders for 2 1/2 -year terms, would replace a part-time system that rotates the seat every six months among standing leaders of member nations. The position is envisioned to be filled with a major European statesman, similar to the U.N. secretary general.

"This isn't going to change decision-making in Europe overwhelmingly. The European Union will remain a union of nations where issues of life, love and death, particularly on tax, social security and other issues, will continue to be set nationally," said Maurice Fraser, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "But by creating a central actor in the form of the new E.U. presidency, it should lead to a more credible status for the E.U. in international affairs."

Poland and the Czech Republic also must still ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Neither nation is holding a referendum, as the Irish did. Though Polish and Czech leaders are widely known as E.U. skeptics, analysts nevertheless think both nations will ratify the treaty before January.

But Irish rejection of the treaty probably would have killed it, setting back the goal of European integration by years, analysts say.

"A no vote would have weakened the E.U., cast doubt on the future of the euro and on the European project itself," said Hugo Brady, senior research fellow for the Center for European Reform in Brussels. "The E.U. will be breathing a sigh of relief."

Special correspondent Brendan Howard in Dublin contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company