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Irish finally say yes to ratifying EU treaty

As the rest of the EU held its breath, Ireland succumbed to persuasion and cleared the way for a new commission and president.

Ballot boxes are opened as the counting of votes begins for the European Union's reform treaty in Dublin, Ireland.
Ballot boxes are opened as the counting of votes begins for the European Union's reform treaty in Dublin, Ireland.

London // There was an almost palpable sigh of relief from the other 26 members of the European Union last night after the Irish voted to ratify the Lisbon Treaty at the second attempt. In a referendum last year, a sizeable majority in the republic rejected the accord, whose provisions are intended to streamline the organisation of the enlarged union. But results of the second referendum, which were declared yesterday afternoon, showed 67.13 per cent had voted in favour of ratification.

Concessions made by the EU - including an agreement that Ireland would not have to bow to European courts on its anti-abortion laws plus the fact that the republic can retain its own commissioner in Brussels - seem to have been enough to sway voters. There were also concerns that, if Lisbon were rejected a second time, it might dent the country's hopes of pulling out of the current economic recession.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe feared that, should there be a second rejection, the continent would be lumbered with a system of multi-state governance wholly unsuited to a 21st century organisation with 27 members. Europe might not be quite out the Lisbon woods yet, however. The British opposition Conservative Party has said that it will hold a referendum if the treaty has not been ratified by the time it wins (as it is expected to do) a general election in the spring.

After the results of the Irish referendum were clear, it was reported the Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, would probably sign the Lisbon treaty within days, and his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Klaus, within a few weeks. "The moment Mr President knows the final and official results, he signs it immediately," said Pawel Wypych, a minister at Mr Kaczynski's chancellery. "It won't happen over this weekend, but it's a matter of days."

Mr Klaus, who sees the document as a step towards a European superstate where national states will lose sovereignty, has not revealed his strategy but he is likely to yield eventually, political observers say. Throughout Europe, in fact, there remains considerable scepticism over the treaty among right-of-centre parties. The provisions are remarkably similar to the proposed European constitution, which fell by the wayside four years ago after being rejected by voters in referenda in France and Holland.

Ireland's "yes" vote - and assuming the Czechs and Poles fall in line - means that the way is now clear for a new European Commission to take office in January. A permanent president will be appointed instead of the current system of rotating the presidency among member states every six months. Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, is among the favourites to get the president's job. If he did, he would have to relinquish his role as Middle East envoy, a job in which he has not been particularly successful and one whose importance has been largely superseded since George Mitchell became the United States' envoy to the region.

Under the Lisbon deal, the EU will also appoint a foreign minister, with the title of High Representative, with the aim of presenting a united European front in foreign affairs. In addition, the treaty also does away with the need for unanimity among member states before changes can be introduced in such areas as economic policy, education, and judicial and law enforce ment cooperation, although Britain and Ireland have already said that they will opt out of the latter.

Unanimous votes will still be required on such issues as foreign affairs, defence, social security and taxation. Now that the emerald isle has given the treaty the green light, an EU summit is likely towards the end of this month to appoint a new president and the high representative. All this, though, would have gone by the board, plunging Europe into a dilemma of major diplomatic proportions, had the Irish voted "no" a second time.

As it was, the Irish ayes were smiling. "I am delighted for the country," Michael Martin, the foreign minister, told Irish radio. He described the result as "a convincing win" for European reform. There was only bitterness among the anti-Lisbon campaigners, who secured a 53.4 per cent "no" vote in the referendum in June last year, plunging the EU into political gridlock. "We are extremely disappointed that the voice of the people was not heard the first time around," commented Richard Greene, a spokesman for Coir ("justice" in English), which had campaigned for rejection of the treaty.

Declan Ganley, a millionaire businessman who founded Libertas, another anti-Lisbon pressure group, put defeat down to people's fears over the economy. "I'm surprised how big the 'yes' vote is. It just shows how scared people are," he said. "I'd like to say it was inspired by hope, but I fear that it was not. But I respect the result and the people have spoken." dsapsted@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters