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Irish voters scuttle European treaty

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 unanimously 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.

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.

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.

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen and opposition leaders insisted that was all nonsense.