Reversing their previous rejection of the Lisbon Treaty, Irish voters supported a new European constitution that should strengthen and streamline EU governance
It passed. Finally. Yet on the day after the Irish "yes" to the Lisbon Treaty, the predominant feeling on the streets of Dublin was one of relief that the referendum was finally over. "Thank God they will all shut up now," said pensioner Margaret Crossley. "I can't listen to them anymore." Claire Grannon, a 28-year-old jewellery designer, agreed. "Finally they will take down these posters," she said.
After a year and a half of debate over the Lisbon Treaty, the Irish have had more than their share of back-and-forth about EU Commissioner seats, sovereignty guarantees and Ireland's role in Europe.
In the vote on Friday, a strong majority of voters threw their support behind the reform document, one that is designed to make decision making within the 27-member bloc more efficient. With votes in 11 of the 43 districts having been counted, the supporters were surprisingly far ahead of the detractors, by 64.4 percent to 35.6 percent. Turnout was over 50 percent.
The middle classes, in particular, made sure to cast their ballots to avoid a repeat of Ireland's "no" vote in June of 2008—a rejection of the Lisbon Treaty which threw the entire European Union into turmoil. In some Dublin neighborhoods, the "yes" vote was well over 70 percent. "I didn't want to keep hearing that the Irish are to blame," said a freelance computer programmer. In working-class districts, bastions of the "no" campaign, turnout tended to be lower than average.
Ireland's approval of the Lisbon Treaty seemed assured soon after the voting booths closed with exit polls showing a hefty lead for the "yes" camp. By Saturday morning, the result was clear enough for Irish Foreign Minister Michael Martin to speak of a "convincing victory" for Lisbon supporters. The Irish multimillionaire Declan Ganley, who played a significant role in the failure of the first referendum over a year ago, spoke of an "overwhelming" victory for treaty backers.
"I am very pleased," said Crossley. "It is much better for us not to be isolated." She said that Ireland should be grateful to Europe—after all, she said, the country would still be a poor island without the EU.
Many see the financial crisis, which has struck Ireland particularly hard, as a primary reason for the flip-flop from last year's "no" to this year's "yes." Plus, says Crossley, "people had time to think about it a bit more."
The rest of Europe was also breathing a sigh of relief on Saturday. A repeat of last summer's "no" would have meant the end of the Lisbon Treaty, and it would have thrown the EU into crisis once again. Brussels, following the nasty surprise of last year, was ready for either outcome. Ireland was seen as the treaty's largest remaining hurdle, and relief at Friday's approval was great.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Germany was "very happy" about the "yes." Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, spoke of "a great day for Europe." European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso thanked the Irish for "this sign of your trust."
With the Irish "yes," it is seen as likely that Polish President Lech Kaczynski will now attach his signature to the treaty. He wanted to wait and see how the Irish would decide. Europe's attention will now be focused squarely on Prague, where Czech President Vaclav Klaus has found a series of new ways to delay signing the treaty, which has already been ratified by the Czech parliament. As recently as Tuesday, 17 pro-Klaus Senators filed a constitutional complaint against the Lisbon Treaty, allowing Klaus to say that he would wait to see how the court decides before signing the document.
And London is also of concern. The head of the British conservatives, David Cameron, sent a letter to Klaus asking him to delay his signature until British parliamentary elections in spring of 2010. Cameron seems well positioned to win the election, and he wants to hold a Lisbon Treaty referendum in Great Britain—despite the fact that the country has already ratified the document. The euro-skeptic British would likely vote no in any referendum.
Still, such a scenario is not terribly likely. A representative of the Czech government in Prague promised EU ambassadors that Klaus would ultimately sign the treaty. He asked other European governments not to interfere in the Czech debate as that would only be counterproductive.
Indeed, it seems as though Cameron may ultimately be forced to make an embarrassing about-face—and it could come during the campaign. Indeed, his anti-Lisbon course is rapidly losing its credibility—and with the Irish "yes," his last great hope has disappeared.