Ireland's voters have embraced "a stronger, fairer and better Europe" by decisively backing the European Union's long-delayed reform treaty, Prime Minister Brian Cowen declared on Saturday as the final result was still being calculated.
With most ballots counted from Friday's referendum, an overwhelming two-thirds of voters were supporting the Lisbon Treaty, a painstakingly negotiated blueprint for modernizing EU institutions and decision-making in an age of rapid expansion eastward and myriad cross-border challenges ranging from terrorism to climate change. Ireland had been the lone EU member requiring the complex document to be ratified through a popular vote, a risky test that the treaty failed last year when the Irish shocked Brussels by voting no.
But Cowen said the Irish understood better, the second time around, what benefits the treaty will bring, and knew they couldn't afford to rebuff European partners at a time of growing economic anxiety at home.
"We as a nation have taken a decisive step for a stronger, fairer and better Ireland, and a stronger, fairer and better Europe," Cowen told reporters outside his Government Buildings headquarters in central Dublin.
"Today we have said to the other countries of Europe that we stand with them as we seek to move forward together. We do this because we know we are better together and stronger together. We will now work with all our partners to ensure that all the reforms that this treaty will bring are implemented."
Electoral officials said the "yes" vote was triumphing in 41 of Ireland's 43 constituencies, a stunning, unexpectedly strong reversal from the June 2008 referendum, when 53.4 percent said "no" to Lisbon. Final results were expected within hours. The Irish agreed to vote again after EU leaders offered key assurances designed to undermine anti-treaty arguments. The EU dropped its plans to prune the size of the European Commission, a move that would have cost Ireland its right to hold a seat continuously on the EU's key executive body. Brussels also reiterated, in formal declarations appended to the treaty, that it would have no control over Ireland's taxes, military neutrality or moral codes.
Cowen said the leaders of the other 26 EU members "listened to the people of Ireland and acted in the spirit of partnership and mutual respect that defines the European Union. That helped us to secure the vital guarantees that made today's victory possible." The pro-treaty camp also waged a stronger campaign the second time around, this time backed by key figures from sports, arts and most crucially the financial world. Business heavyweights Intel and Ryanair appealed for "yes" votes as the only way to ensure that Ireland remains a favored base for foreign companies. With the counts at 34 of 43 constituencies completed, the "yes" vote was running at an overwhelming 67 percent, "no" 33 percent. Only in Ireland's conservative northwest corner, Donegal, were voters still turning down the treaty. Donegal Northeast voted 51.5 percent "no," down 13 points from 2008, while neighboring Donegal Southwest voted 50.3 percent "no," also down 13 points. Many analysts said they were surprised to see early returns running so decisively in favor of the treaty. Most had forecast only a narrow victory for the treaty, citing Cowen's deep unpopularity amid spending cuts, tax rises and double-digit unemployment. In Brussels, European Commission leader Jose Manuel Barroso said he was "extremely happy" about Ireland's "overwhelming decision after such lengthy and careful deliberation."
"Ireland has recognized the role that the European Union has played in responding to the economic crisis," he said in reference to recent EU aid to laid-off Irish computer workers as well as the European Central Bank's underwriting of a planned euro54 billion ($80 billion) bailout of Irish banks.
In Stockholm, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt called Ireland's pro-treaty verdict "a good day for Europe. It has been a long journey." The treaty reached by national leaders in the Portuguese capital in 2007 spells out how the EU should reshape its decision-making, size and image in line with its near-doubling in size since 2004. It proposes to increase the ability of leaders to make decisions with majority rather than unanimous votes, but also gives more influence in policy-shaping to national legislatures and the European Parliament.
The treaty requires unanimous ratification. All the other EU nations already have passed the treaty through their national parliaments. Only the heads of state of Poland and the Czech Republic have yet to withhold their assent, citing Ireland's uncertain approval.
A second Irish rebuff would have killed the treaty and built pressure to chart another way forward that would not be subject to another Irish veto, the long-threatened "two-speed Europe" in which a core of like-minded nations would move ahead of naysayers like Ireland.
Ireland's Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins, one of the few elected Irish politicians to campaign against the treaty, blamed what he called "one of the most unequal and unbalanced campaigns in our history," including the intervention from Ryanair and Intel. But another prominent treaty opponent, Irish businessman Declan Ganley, credited Cowen with leading "a phenomenal campaign" that turned major opposition leaders "into his glove-puppets." Ganley said most voters still opposed the EU's lack of democratic accountability and resented being forced to vote twice. But he said voters didn't feel they could afford to alienate European partners at a time when Ireland has become so economically vulnerable and dependent on Brussels' financial support.
"I'm surprised how big the `yes' vote is. It just shows how scared people are," said Ganley, whose anti-EU Libertas movement plastered Dublin with posters depicting a tearful girl beneath mottos questioning whether other Europeans even had functioning democracies.
While virtually all Irish political parties backed the treaty, anti-EU campaigners from the left and right fringes sought to maximize anti-EU passions with a wide range of claims that the government branded blatant lies. They contended that an empowered Brussels would raise Ireland's taxes, slash its minimum wage, force its soldiers into a European army and legalize abortion and euthanasia.