Dublin, Ireland To the relief of Europe's leaders, Irish voters dropped their objection to European Union expansion and gave a resounding "yes" to a plan for nearly doubling EU membership and extending the Union to the borders of Russia.
Final official results, announced Sunday by Irish election officials, showed that 63 percent of the voters approved the expansion proposal during Saturday's referendum the country's second on the issue.
Ireland, which rejected the plan in a vote last year, became the last of the 15 EU members to approve a treaty, negotiated in December 2000 in Nice, France, to admit 12 new members, mostly former communist countries of eastern Europe.
Irish approval was considered the most important legal obstacle standing in the way of the historic expansion eagerly awaited by Eastern Europe since the fall of communism more than a decade ago.
"The Irish in their great wisdom have symbolically taken the last brick from the Berlin Wall," said Pat Cox, an Irishman and president of the European Parliament.
EU leaders, who were dismayed by Ireland's shock rejection of the Nice Treaty in June 2001, welcomed the outcome. "We can proceed with enlargement without any more obstacles," said European Commission President Romano Prodi, who had warned a second Irish rejection would have been a "disaster" for Europe.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the vote marked "a fundamental step for the historic process of Europe's reunification." French President Jacques Chirac said the vote "opens the path to...the unity of our continent."
"The people in Ireland were conscious of their great responsibility toward Europe," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in a statement.
With the Irish now on board, EU leaders are expected during their summit in December in Copenhagen to issue formal invitations to 10 countries Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Estonia, Malta and Cyprus to join the EU in 2004.
Bulgaria and Romania are expected to enter the Union three years later, assuming they complete economic and political reforms.
Turnout in Saturday's vote was about 49 percent, election officials said.