DUBLIN, Ireland -- In a dramatic aboutface, Irish voters gave the go-ahead to a vast expansion of the European Union expansion, endorsing a plan to push the union to the borders of Russia, first returns from a crucial referendum indicated Sunday.
Irish approval would remove the last major, legal impediment to expanding the Union into a community of nearly a half billion people, overcoming the divisions that have wracked Europe throughout its long and often turbulent history.
Sixteen months ago, in June, 2001, 54 percent of voters rejected the Treaty of Nice endorsing expansion in a turnout of barely 35 percent. That outcome sent a shock wave across Europe and embarrassed Ireland into staging another vote.
On Saturday, voters in seven districts, six in the Dublin area, endorsed expansion by nearly 66 percent to 33 percent. They represent less than a sixth of Ireland's total electorate, but analysts said the margin was so great and the turnout in Dublin so high that it was unlikely the uncounted votes would change the final outcome.
Final results were expected Sunday.
"This referendum is all over. It's 'yes,"' said Dublin political analyst Noel Whelan. He said support for EU expansion had risen dramatically in the capital since the last referendum and that turnout in rural areas was too low to change the outcome.
Deputy Prime Minister Mary Harney predicted expansion would win by 60 percent to 40 percent when the final votes are tabulated.
Rejected treaty in 2001
The Irish Alliance for Europe, that supports the Nice Treaty, predicted a nationwide 65 percent support margin for the treaty and an overall turnout of 47.5 percent.
The expansion blueprint is contained in a treaty negotiated in December 2000 in Nice, France to fulfill the post-Cold War dream of integrating former communist states into the European fold.
The treaty must be ratified by all 15 current members of the EU. Fourteen have done so by parliamentary vote, but Ireland's constitution requires it to hold a referendum.
In a move that stunned EU leaders, Irish voters turned down the treaty in July 2001 by 54 percent to 46 percent -- a result blamed on a low, 34 percent, turnout and a lackluster campaign by its supporters.
This time, treaty supporters throughout the EU hoped that a larger turnout and a more aggressive government campaign in support of expansion would persuade most Irish voters to approve it.
Turnout in the seven districts appeared to be high, ranging from 44 percent to 55 percent, far above last year's 34 percent. Strong turnout is believed to favor the pro-expansionists.
Irish approval would be an enormous relief for European Union officials, who feared this tiny nation of less than 4 million people might scuttle the entire expansion project.
EU officials had said there was no fallback plan if the Irish rejected the treaty a second time.
If the Irish say 'no' again, the Nice treaty would have lapsed at year's end, delaying expansion for years. It has already been ratified in the other EU states by votes in national legislatures.
European Commission President Romano Prodi said this week that a second rejection would be a "disaster scenario," adding "we hope the Irish people realize just how important the referendum is."
Fearing a crisis within the EU, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern campaigned for weeks to galvanize support for expansion, insisting it would boost Ireland's export-oriented economy and enhance cultural diversity.
"I voted 'yes,' because that is the right thing to do," Ahern said Saturday as he emerged from a polling station in north Dublin.
If the Irish ratify the Nice Treaty, the EU leaders will formally invite Cyprus, Malta, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia to join in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria may get invitations to join in 2007 and Turkey -- a 13th EU candidate -- was hoping to be given a starting date for its entry negotiations.
The Nice treaty will replace the current version of the EU charter that foresees only five candidates entering in 2004 -- a number deemed realistic when that treaty was signed in Amsterdam in 1997.
Some Irish critics said they did not object to accepting new EU members but oppose provisions of the treaty which they fear will reduce Ireland's influence and erode the country's cherished military neutrality.
Ireland has profited from its own EU membership, enabling a land once known for famine and emigration to achieve some of Europe's strongest economic growth rates. Some Irish, however, fear that EU subsidies once provided to countries like Ireland, Greece and Portugal will be directed to much poorer nations to the east.
"I believe that France and Germany are pushing the buttons here," said Dublin taxi driver Brian De Bheb. "And we're being told to toe the line."
Others felt the 70 million people in candidate countries deserved their chance at the same prosperity and democratic freedoms which the Irish enjoy.
"I will vote yes. They deserve a fair crack of the whip," said 49-year-old Sean Killalee, who was first into the booth at Dublin's Whitefriars Street station.
As voters went to the polls, banners and placards fluttered from lampposts throughout the Irish capital, reflecting the fears and hopes of the opposing camps.
"You will lose power, money and freedom," declared an anti-treaty notice hanging opposite Dublin Castle.
'"Yes' for a strong economy," said a sign posted by pro-treaty activists.