20th Feb 2020

Ireland concerned by effects of British exit from EU

  • Britain and Ireland both joined the EU in 1973 (Photo: William Murphy)

The possibility of a Greek exit from the eurozone is stealing all the headlines around Europe but in Ireland it is the prospect of a British exit from the EU that is occupying the minds of politicians.

Culturally, socially, historically, and geographically linked to the UK, Ireland is slowly waking up to the fact that within a few years’ time, the neighbour with whom it conducts over 20 percent of its trade might no longer be a part of the European Union.

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  • Dominic Hannigan: "We share the same culture, we watch the same programmes, we buy the same music; we listen to the same radio, we watch the same films. We follow the same football teams" (Photo: The Irish Labour Party)

This could have a series of knock-on effects, from the economic - a recent study by the Open Europe thinktank concluded that a 'Brexit' could be more costly for Ireland than the UK - to the practical and legal, such as how to manage the border between EU member Ireland and potentially non-EU member Northern Ireland?

British prime minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership if his party gets re-elected in a vote on 7 May and so far the Conservatives are neck and neck in the polls with Labour, on 34 percent each.

Enda Kenny, Irish prime minister, recently remarked that a No vote - a referendum could be held as early as 2016 - would have "very serious consequences" for Irish people.

The Irish parliament's Europe affairs committee is already looking into the matter.

"To date there has been very little discussion across European capitals about what the impact would be on Europe. And not just on any particular country. So we’re kind of slightly ahead of the curve in relation to thinking about these issues," the committee's chair, Labour MP Dominic Hannigan, told this website.

Referendum inevitable

He said that the committee's conclusions for a report, due to be published at the end of next month, will suggest that "whatever the results of the May election, there will be [a referendum]".

Referring to a two-day trip to London to meet politicians, academics, and business people, he said: "The evidence that we got was not a question of if, but of when. There’s a feeling out there that the boil has to be lanced."

Irish businesses are "all incredulous about the fact that we’re here" and worrying about the "unknowns", such as whether there will be trade tariffs between Ireland and the UK or whether the UK will still be in the single market.

Hannigan also notes that there are potential repercussions for Northern Ireland, but politicians in the region seem to have "very little knowledge of what an exit would mean".

"We’re only 20 years after the ceasefire and things are still fragile in the North. If the UK was to leave, that would make it very difficult for a lot of the new crossborder institutions," he said, referring to bodies set up as a result of 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Hannigan also suggested that if the current anti-migration sentiment prevails in the UK and it leaves the EU, it could mean border checks between the north and south of Ireland.

"They could argue there is no point in putting up a border at Heathrow where they limit the number of worker or migrants from the rest of the EU to X number per year if those people can now just fly into Dublin and take a train up to Belfast and enter the UK without showing any papers at all."

Key ally in Brussels

The deputy also noted that a British EU exit would remove a key ally at the negotiating table in Brussels - something that is said to also worry other free-market cheerleaders in the EU.

"On a European level, quite often, when we’re in there pushing for a certain agenda or policy, we’re just right beside the British. To lose an ally like that at a European level would be very difficult."

But overall Hannigan reckons that the vote will result in Britons saying Yes to EU membership "if people get out and start working for it".

In the meantime, certain concessions could be won that help Britons feel more positive about the EU and benefit all 28 member states.

"If there is a renegotiation [of the treaty], I think that we can expect to see further powers given to national powers which can only be a good thing for democracy", he said.

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