UK exit from EU would take big toll on Border area
The Irish diplomatic service should brief British MPs on the heavy political and human cost of leaving the EU
It is increasingly likely that in the next British general election campaign, both Labour and the Conservatives will promise a referendum on the EU.
The parties are being driven to make this promise by the threat posed to their positions by the UK Independence Party.Ukip voters are primarily concerned about immigration and, only secondarily, do they want Britain out of the EU.
The Conservative plan is to try to renegotiate the terms of UK membership of the EU, and then put the terms to a referendum. It looks as if Labour may now adopt a similar policy.
Such a renegotiation, whether conducted by Labour or the Conservatives, is unlikely to satisfy British popular expectations. If so, the UK electorate may choose in a referendum to leave the EU, in protest against the failure to get a good enough “deal” for Britain.
British popular opinion sees “Europe” as a foreign country, with which Britain has a sort of treaty, and not as something of which the UK is a participating member with a vote on every decision.
The role in EU decisions of British MEPs, British ministers, and a British commissioner is ignored. All decisions are presented as emanating from an “unelected” bureaucracy, and the role of “elected” British MEPs and “elected” British ministers in the whole process is passed over.
The renegotiation is likely to be a disappointment in Britain because expectations are unrealistic. It will not be a negotiation with bureaucrats in “Brussels”, but with all 26 other members of a club of which the UK has been a full member over 40 years.
The renegotiation for Britain would have to satisfy every one of those other 26 states. Britain may want to pay less, but other countries may want it to pay more. Many other EU countries see the very things British negotiators would most like to be rid of, like the working time directive, as part of what they gained, in return for their opening up to the single market . Exempting Britain from the Common Agricultural Policy, another possible British demand, will get nowhere.
As the British election approaches, there will be talk of new “red lines” from both parties, and this will make the negotiation even more difficult. In the latest poll, 49 per cent of UK citizens say they would vote to leave the EU, and only 32 per cent that they would vote to stay in. No matter how good the pro-EU arguments in the campaign might be, that gap of 17 points may simply be too big.
Referendums can deliver surprising results. Extraneous issues, anger and complacency can lead people to vote contrary to their own objective interests. And there is unlikely to be a second referendum.
The effect of Britain leaving the EU could weaken fragile compromise in Northern Ireland and this is being completely ignored in the debate taking place both in Britain and in Brussels, where the impatience with the British is palpable, and where there is little disposition to accommodate what are seen as unreasonable British demands put forward when the EU has more important things on its mind.