Fine Gael Brexit breakfast digests likely effect of Leave outcome

Nothing lukewarm in Irish sensibility: If Britain leaves it should not drag NI with it

Arthur Beesley reports on the potential political and economic consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

As the British referendum campaign intensified this week, things also stepped up a gear in Strasbourg at the final European Parliament plenary session before the British referendum.

Yesterday, Fine Gael’s four MEPs hosted a “Brexit breakfast”.

It wasn’t quite croissants at dawn, but the occasion was lively nonetheless.

On one side of the room sat several members of the UK Independence Party. As they waited for the event to begin, one Ukip MEP could be heard complaining about the lack of tea as she surveyed with alarm the distinctly continental breakfast of coffee and charcuterie laid before her.

As we chatted, I asked if she planned to go back to England to campaign. She gave me a steely stare.

“Of course I’m campaigning,” she snapped. “I live in England, darling. I only turn up here to vote. I vote no, and then I go back home,” she said, her gaze morphing into a winning Ukip smile that would do Nigel Farage proud.

As the debate began, it was all smiles as MEPs from both sides of the campaign set out their stall, though Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune inadvertently wandered into enemy territory as she took a seat in the midst of the Ukip camp.

Richard Corbett, a veteran Labour MEP, who was sitting in a huddle of pro-Remain MEPs on the other side of the room, was the first to speak.

Highlighting the Leave campaign’s focus on immigration, he said that most migrants to the UK hail from outside the EU and have “nothing to do with Brussels”. Similarly, he rubbished the Brexiteers’ economic analysis, arguing that “for every pound we put in, we get nearly £10 back in economic benefits”.

Juggernaut momentum

Roger Helmer

“There’s no hope of reforming it,” he said, criticising the EU “propaganda” that is being disseminated in British schools. But he disputed Corbett’s characterisation of the Ukip campaign.

“This idea that we wish to turn our backs to Europe is absurd. What we want to do is to be a good neighbour, to co-operate, to trade, but to do so as an independent self-governing democratic country, not as an offshore province in somebody else’s country.”

Many attendees from both sides of the debate nodded.

As the debate continued under the chairmanship of Seán Kelly, a number of Irish MEPs intervened.

Evoking the Ireland of the past when physical borders divided the island, Mairead McGuinness praised the EU for its role in the peace process, describing how Europe offered “a place where people who could not engage found time and space to engage, where they couldn’t debate serious issues on their home patch, but found a neutral space to do it here”.

Her comments were echoed by Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson who said that if Britain votes to leave it should not drag Northern Ireland with it, comments that elicited snorts of disapproval from the Ukip contingent, as well as uneasy mutterings about the IRA.

Brian Hayes was asked about the economic effects of a Brexit on Ireland, and he concluded that any advantages to Ireland would be outweighed by the inevitable economic shock that would arise.

Among the strongest contributions were from two Labour MEPs who outlined the impact of Brexit on Britain’s regions. Scottish MEP Catherine Stihler said that thousands of Scottish jobs depended on the single market.

Trade surplus

European Union

“We would be absolutely crippled as a region if we left the European Union . . . as the poorest English region we are effectively net beneficiaries of our EU membership. The EU has been a project of redistribution. For us that means crucial investment. It’s about local jobs, local industries, it’s about ensuring regional development,” she said.

After almost an hour of robust debate, Helmer pulled Kelly aside and apologised that he had to leave.

“Nigel is speaking in the chamber – we have to go,” he whispered, as he and his comrades left to see their leader, who had somehow made it back to the continent in record time after his ITV debate on Tuesday night.

As the breakfast drew to a close, MEPs quietly drifted back to their daily parliamentary agenda.

While the debate raised as many questions as answers, it did confirm one certainty. If Britain is to leave the European Union, the European Parliament will be a far less interesting place.

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