Irish voters veto EU treaty

Saturday, June 14, 2008

DUBLIN, Ireland -- It took years to negotiate, weighs in at 260 pages, is virtually unreadable -- and now could be a dead letter.

Irish voters vetoed a painstakingly drafted treaty Friday that had been designed to streamline the European Union. Politicians from all of Ireland's major parties worked hard to sell the complex, deeply technical document to a confused and suspicious public.

Only Ireland put the treaty before the voters at all. The other 26 members are ratifying it through their parliaments, in part fearful of what happened to its predecessor, an even bigger, more ambitious constitution that French and Dutch voters torpedoed in 2005.

To become law, the treaty must be approved by all 27 EU nations. But Ireland's constitution requires EU treaties be put to a vote -- a risky policy for the EU, whose powerful commissioners are not popularly elected and seem distant from the ordinary European.

The overwhelming majority of Ireland's politicians supported the Treaty of Lisbon, named after the city where the charter was signed by all member governments in December 2007. But they found it impossible to sell.

"If I was ever in charge of producing another treaty, I would say strongly to everyone at the table: Would you put something into it that's a big-ticket item that you can actually sell to people? Because this was full of technical detail," said Mary Hanafin, a government minister charged with drumming up support.

Her boss, Prime Minister Brian Cowen, faces certain embarrassment and possible isolation at an EU summit next week.

This is the second time that Ireland has voted against an EU treaty. The last time, in 2001, Ireland negotiated with EU partners to produce an appendix emphasizing Ireland's independence and staged a vote a year later, this time achieving a "yes" majority.

Such diplomatic maneuverings have fueled voter resentment.

"What part of 'no' do they not understand?" asked Declan Ganley, leader of an anti-treaty pressure group, Libertas.

Ganley's campaign emphasized the threat to Ireland's unusually low business tax rates, a major reason why 600 U.S. companies have made their European homes in Ireland rather than France or Germany.

Cowen rued the fact that the government found itself on the defensive because Libertas and other groups opposed to the treaty successfully played on people's fears it would mean a loss of national sovereignty.

Anti-treaty groups from the left and right mobilized "no" voters by claiming the treaty would empower EU chiefs in Brussels, Belgium, to force Ireland to change core policies -- including its military neutrality and its ban on abortion as well as low business taxes.

Cowen and opposition leaders insisted that was all nonsense.

But in the towns and villages of Ireland -- a country that, since joining the EU 35 years ago, has arguably benefited most from membership because of massive financial aid from wealthy EU partners -- people proved receptive to the warnings.

"I like being part of Europe. But I don't want Europe to take away any more of our Irishness," said Dublin taxi driver Ray Kennedy, who like many in the Irish capital complains about the Eastern European job-seekers who have inundated Ireland since the EU's rapid expansion in 2004.

He, like 53.4 percent of voters, rejected the treaty in Thursday's referendum.

Unlike the 2001 treaty rejection, which prevailed on a weak 34.8 percent turnout, this referendum mobilized unprecedented numbers of anti-treaty voters in a 53 percent turnout, high by Irish standards. This increases the difficulty of mounting a second Irish vote, as many EU backers undoubtedly want to do.

Ireland's minister for European affairs, Dick Roche, predicted a second vote would be difficult, if not impossible.

"As far as I'm concerned, this treaty is a dead letter," Roche said, adding that Ireland's voters have "made life very difficult for us going out to Brussels. We are in completely uncharted territory here, a very strange position."

"We need to hear clearly from all our leaders that the Lisbon Treaty cannot be brought back from the dead," said Richard Greene, spokesman for a right-wing Catholic group called Coir, which is Gaelic for "Justice."

Coir plastered Ireland with posters showing three chimpanzees covering their eyes, ears and mouth and the message, "The new EU won't see you, won't hear you, and won't speak for you -- vote no."

In capitals across Europe, leaders said ratification should proceed regardless of the Irish vote. Ahead lie painful months of negotiations aimed at somehow overcoming the Irish veto.

"At the European Council, we will want to confer with each other, to hear Prime Minister Cowen's analysis, as well as his ideas on how to address the concerns expressed by those who chose to vote no," EU President Jose Manuel Barroso told reporters in Brussels.

In neighboring Britain, one of eight EU partners yet to ratify the treaty, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the Irish outcome "needs to be respected and digested" -- but should not oblige other countries to postpone their own ratification plans.

"I think it's important that no one tells them what to do next. It's very important the Irish make their own decisions about how to go forward on the basis of a careful analysis of the results," Miliband said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that patient diplomacy might eventually turn the Irish "No" to "Yes."

"We would have liked a different outcome, but as good Europeans we now have the task of simply taking the situation as it is and finding a way out, while at the same time respecting the vote of the Irish," she said.

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