Defining moment in EU history: How Brexit would affect Ireland

UK prime minister David Cameron plans referendum on staying in EU

‘British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that if his party wins the general election this May, then by 2017 he will hold a referendum to ask the British people whether they should remain in the EU.’ Photograph: EPA/ANDY RAIN

In 2013, UK prime minister David Cameron announced that if his party wins the general election this May then, by 2017, he will hold a referendum to ask the British people whether they should remain in the EU. A UK exit from the EU would have a significant impact on UK-Irish relations, due to the knock-on effects on areas such as economic interdependence, regional and border issues, and EU decision-making. Ireland and Britain both joined the EU on the same day in 1973 and our economies are closely intertwined.

Ireland and the UK have sat together at the negotiating table in Brussels and witnessed the evolution of the EU. Put simply, we have never been in the EU without our closest neighbour and most important trading partner.

Recognising the significance to Ireland of any potential “Brexit”, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs is holding a series of meetings examining the implications for Ireland of a UK exit from the EU.

While respecting the right of the UK to hold a referendum, as chairman of the committee, I believe it is crucial Ireland engages with the question of Brexit before the referendum, in order to ensure that Irish concerns form part of the negotiating process.


Historical juncture

We find ourselves at a defining juncture in the EU’s history. An increasing level of Euroscepticism across Europe has alerted political leaders to the challenges present in forming domestic policies, while simultaneously contributing to shaping the direction of the EU.

If the UK votes to quit the EU, there would be a number of serious consequences for Ireland. Under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, a UK vote to leave would be followed by negotiations on the terms of their departure. If we are to secure our strategic interests after a UK exit, we should be engaged from the very beginning in assisting in framing the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.

We should also be involved at the start because we need an input into any new arrangements that might be put in place at EU level. That process of renegotiation of current membership terms will be ongoing right up to the referendum.

In the event of a Brexit, one of the most significant areas of concern for Ireland would be the impact on relations with Northern Ireland and, in particular, on the peace process. If the UK were to leave the union, the Border could become an international frontier staffed by passport checkpoints and customs control.

Border issues

We have never had immigration control of any kind with Britain and any change in this policy could hinder our free movement arrangements with our neighbour. People living in Border counties would be affected greatly.

Added to this would be the psychological impact for the North as a whole. The Belfast Agreement has brought lasting positive effects to the everyday lives of families throughout the North, but its implementation continues to prove challenging and it requires constant cultivation if we are to ensure its long-term success. There are questions to be asked as to what effect Brexit would have on cross-Border co-operation.

The committee is also keen to explore the impact of Brexit on Ireland’s financial services. The City of London is home to approximately 250 foreign banks, many of which have their main European bases there. Were the UK to exit the EU, there is an argument to be made for many of them choosing to move their activities to Dublin, should these organisations find themselves with curtailed access to the EU in the event of Britain leaving the bloc. There are those who believe that Ireland would be the natural hub for many financial services activities formally based in London. This is down to our similarities with the British system, including language, laws and geographical positioning.

Open discussion

The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs respects utterly the sovereignty of the citizens of the UK to make the decision as to whether or not to leave the EU. We are not seeking to influence the outcome of any possible referendum. However, I am convinced that the committee has a role to play in scrutinising the implications for Ireland of a potential Brexit. The joint committee’s motivation in holding these hearings is to facilitate an open discussion about the possible impacts on Ireland and on the many Irish people who have made the UK their home, and for those UK citizens currently residing in Ireland.

Dominic Hannigan TD is chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs and Labour TD for Meath East