UK exit from EU would take big toll on Border area

Fri, Dec 21, 2012, 00:00

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.

Obviously if the UK leaves the EU, it would negotiate some sort of new relationship with it. All sides will agree on that because half of British exports go to the euro zone.

But what sort of relationship? One of the big drivers of anti-EU sentiment in Britain is immigration of EU citizens from central and eastern European countries, like Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltics. Gordon Brown famously encountered this sentiment during the last British general election.

If the UK left the EU, it would indeed be free to bar immigration from particular EU countries. But, as a continuing member of the EU, the Republic could not do the same.

So if the UK wanted to prevent these EU immigrants entering the UK through the Republic, it would have to introduce passport controls at Newry, Aughnacloy, Strabane and on all other roads by which they could cross the Border from the Republic into the UK.

If the UK was outside the EU, tariffs would also have to be collected on UK exports entering this state. Average EU tariffs are quite low, but some tariffs, on items such as dairy products and clothing, are quite high.

Customs posts would have to be placed on Border roads to ensure collection of these tariffs. Smuggling, with all its potential as a funding source for other forms of illegality, would become very profitable again.

But the human and political cost in the Border counties would be the worst aspect of it. Nationalist communities would again feel cut off from the Republic by the inconvenience of passport controls, and the efforts to market Ireland as a single tourist destination would be set at naught.

Some might say that these risks could be mitigated if the UK negotiated a deal with the EU like those of Norway or Switzerland, including free trade and free movement of people .

Apart from the fact that this would not satisfy British anti-immigration sentiment, to have duty-free access to EU markets for its goods and services Britain would have to continue to apply EU rules, as now, but without having had any say in them.

This is what Switzerland and Norway have to do. Britain would also have to continue to contribute to the EU budget, as Norway does. That would be even more annoying to British Eurosceptics than the present situation. Complete UK exit is therefore a real possibility.

The Irish diplomatic service should intensively brief all British MPs well in advance of the next UK election on the dangers of setting off a train of events that could lead to an exit of Northern Ireland, along with the UK, from the European Union.


JOHN BRUTONis a former taoiseach and former EU ambassador to the US