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Irish voters on track to approve European Union overhaul

Early returns show that recession-hit voters overwhelmingly back a treaty calling for a stronger EU. They had rejected it a year ago over sovereignty concerns.

October 04, 2009|Henry Chu

LONDON — Only 16 months after rejecting it the first time, voters in Ireland have overwhelmingly approved a wide-ranging treaty to overhaul how the European Union is run and to give the 27-nation body a more forceful presence on the world stage, returns showed Saturday.

And the biggest winner may turn out to be someone who couldn't even vote: former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is the hot favorite to become the EU's first president under the new system, which would vault him firmly back into the international limelight that he basks in.

Returns in Ireland the day after voters went to the polls showed the so-called Lisbon Treaty passing with 67% approval. It was a stunning turnaround of the treaty's defeat in a referendum in June 2008, when 53% of voters rejected it.

At the time, many Irish, awash in confidence amid their country's economic boom, saw the proposed revisions to the European constitution as infringements on their sovereignty, changes they believed would give the EU undue power over Ireland's tax policy, military neutrality and ban on abortion, among other issues.

But a year later, the Celtic Tiger is whimpering. The global recession has hurt Ireland more than most other countries, wiping out much of the economic gains of the last several years and sending thousands of people to the unemployment lines.

Belief and gratitude that EU membership shielded Ireland from worse economic harm pushed skeptics of the treaty into the arms of the "Yes" camp, analysts say. So did an energetic campaign to explain the merits of the complex treaty, abetted by pitches from business leaders, cultural figures and celebrities.

And written guarantees that the pact would not trump national policy in sensitive areas helped assure those who had worried over a loss of sovereignty.

"The collapse of the economy between the two votes was the most significant factor in changing Irish people's minds, because it became clear that their membership in the euro protected them from financial collapse," said Hugo Brady, a senior analyst with the London-based Center for European Reform.

"This was not a vote on the treaty text itself," he said. "This was a vote on whether or not Ireland is a happy member of the EU and sees its future in the EU. . . . It was existential."

The reversal of fortune was greeted with relief and jubilation by the beleaguered Irish government. Nearly all of Ireland's political parties favor the accord, and its defeat last year was a major embarrassment for the political establishment.

"The Irish people have spoken with a clear and resounding voice," Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said. "This is a good day for Ireland, and it's a good day for Europe. We as a nation have taken a decisive step for a stronger, fairer and better Ireland, and a stronger, fairer and better Europe."

Opponents were resigned.

"The will of the people, I suppose some will say, has been seen. Some might say that the fear of the people has been seen," said Declan Ganley, a prominent anti-treaty activist.

The treaty, which runs to more than 300 pages, provides for an EU president and a foreign minister to raise the coalition's profile in diplomatic circles. It calls for strengthening military preparedness, streamlining decision-making procedures and beefing up cooperation to fight problems such as crime and climate change.

All 27 member nations must ratify the pact for it to take hold, but only Ireland demanded a popular referendum.

Attention now shifts to two remaining countries: Poland, whose government is expected to ratify the accord, and the Czech Republic, where it has been a tougher sell; but the decisive outcome in Ireland's vote could boost the treaty's chances.

Many eyes are also on Blair. For months, he has been considered the front-runner for the projected new EU presidency.

Despite having left office in 2007 under a cloud, because of his strong support for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the charismatic British politician has retained much of his worldwide star power and is currently the international envoy to the Middle East. That high profile gives him an edge over competent but lesser-known candidates such as Jose Manuel Barroso, the current head of the European Commission, analysts say.

Blair is said to be interested in the EU job but does not want to be seen lobbying for it. Under the terms of the treaty, the president is chosen by the leaders of the 27 member states.

" 'President' Blair waits on voters of Ireland," declared the front-page headline in Friday's edition of the Times of London.

A Blair presidency would certainly inject a new dynamic into the domestic political scene in Britain. The opposition Conservative Party is expected to win the general election that must be called by June, but could find that its new Conservative prime minister would have to deal with an EU president who belongs to the rival Labor Party.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

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