Ireland's recession-hit voters have overwhelmingly approved the European Union's ambitious and long-delayed reform plans, electoral chiefs announced Saturday in a referendum result greeted with wild cheers in Dublin - and nervous sighs of relief in Brussels.
Ireland had been the primary obstacle to ratifying the EU Lisbon Treaty, a mammoth agreement designed to modernize and strengthen the 27-nation bloc's institutions and decision-making powers in line with its near-doubling in size since 2004. The treaty will make it easier to take decisions by majority rather than unanimous votes, and give a bigger say to national parliaments and the European Parliament in shaping EU policies.
The Irish - the only EU citizens voting directly for a complex, impenetrably legal document that has been eight years in the making - stunned Brussels last year with a surprise rejection fueled by fears that an emboldened EU would force neutral Ireland to raise its business taxes, join a European army and legalize abortion.
Ireland staged a second vote Friday after winning legal assurances from EU chiefs that Brussels would not interfere in any of those areas, nor take away Ireland's guaranteed ministerial seat on the European Commission.
"We as a nation have taken a decisive step for a stronger, fairer and better Ireland, and a stronger, fairer and better Europe," Prime Minister Brian Cowen told reporters outside his central Dublin office.
Cowen - whose government won despite suffering record-low popularity amid Ireland's worst economic crisis since the 1930s - thanked his European partners for addressing why most Irish voted no last time.
He said EU chiefs "listened to the people of Ireland and acted in the spirit of partnership and mutual respect that defines the European Union. That helped us to secure the vital guarantees that made today's victory possible."
In the Dublin Castle referendum center, electoral chiefs announced the treaty's approval on a 67.1 percent "yes" vote on a relatively strong 58 percent turnout. Pro-treaty campaigners from the government and chief opposition parties alike hooted and hollered, waving placards saying "We're Better Together" and simply "YES."
Ireland in 2008 rejected the treaty with a 53.4 percent "no" vote on 51 percent turnout.
The treaty still requires signatures from the Euro-skeptic heads of state of Poland and the Czech Republic, where national parliaments already have approved the treaty. But the EU expects soon to appoint a new 27-member commission - and new posts of president and foreign minister to project the EU's policies more forcefully on the world stage. New voting rules won't take effect until 2014 at the earliest.
The EU's senior diplomat in Washington, former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton, called the referendum victory "a huge relief."
"Now the way is clear to get on with the real work of restoring the lost dynamism of the shared economy of Europe and Ireland," Bruton said.
The fringe anti-EU groups that triumphed in 2008 attributed this week's stunning U-turn to the rapid unraveling of Ireland's long-booming economy.
Over the past year Ireland's debt has soared and unemployment doubled, and its overstretched banks could fail without a planned â‚¬54 billion ($80 billion) bailout being underwritten by the European Central Bank.
"The 'yes' campaign skillfully played to people's economic fears. They said 'no' leads to ruin, and 'yes' to recovery," said Patricia McKenna, leader of a left-wing pressure group called the People's Movement that opposes EU integration.
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