Speech by Brian Hayes MEP to British Irish Association, Pembroke College, Oxford September 6th 2014
Unlike most other countries in Europe, the UK has been a model of political stability. But that may be changing. British party politics and British institutions and constitutional arrangements are now in a state of flux. Literally anything could happen over the next few years as the course of British history could dramatically change because of Scotland and Europe, or both. Ireland needs to prepare for the possibility of major political change to our nearest neighbour.
Putting it bluntly we need to keep a close eye, without being directly involved, in what’s happening next door. We need to be aware of the consequences of a UK referendum on EU membership, for Ireland but crucially for the rest of the EU also. We need to be planning now and thinking out the impact of such change here, were it to happen.
In my view Europe without Britain would be a disaster for Britain and a disaster for Europe. There is no roadmap for a country within the EU deciding to leave the EU, although the treaties do provide for it. But the political implications of such a decision are not fully understood.
The upcoming Scottish referendum on staying in the UK or becoming independent has immense consequences for a potential in or out referendum on EU membership in Britain as a whole.
If Scotland votes for independence, the prospect that the rest of the UK will want EU withdrawal must increase. If Scotland votes to stay in the UK, and the rest of Britain votes to leave the EU in a future referendum, despite a large majority in Scotland wanting to stay in the EU, then the issue of Scottish independence becomes a live issue once again.
Whatever the outcome on the Scottish vote, one thing is certain, the Scottish parliament and executive will demand more devolved powers from Westminster. The Welsh Assembly is also demanding increased powers. Change is happening in the UK and it seems no one can or should presume what the full impact of this changed new constitutional landscape might look like.
Ireland needs to take account of the evolving dynamics of the British state and how we should respond to these changes. For example what is the likely impact of Scottish independence on Northern Ireland politics? In many respects Northern Ireland’s links with the UK are more with Scotland than with rest of the UK.
British membership of the European Union is now also up for debate.
The Irish political establishment remains very happy with the current Dublin/London Axis. Relations between both governments have never been better. There is real partnership on many EU issues and, unlike other EU countries, we in Ireland have an insight into the often difficult relationship that Britain has with Europe. We can use that understanding to good effect. I think Ireland can serve a useful role in the debate on British membership. Ireland can be a bridge of interpretation between Britain and other members of the EU.
Since becoming a member of the European Parliament I am being constantly asked by colleagues, particularly German MEPs, about my views on Britain and its attitude to the European Union. Germany, but also Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe are extremely anxious that Britain remain a fully involved member of the EU. No one can predict if other countries would follow Britain, if it decided to leave the EU.
In order for a successful British vote to emerge from any referendum on the EU into the future, Britain will need a new deal. Whatever that deal might be, it cannot cut across the legitimate interests of other counties or seek to re – open existing treaties.
It’s clear to me that we are likely to see more integration within Eurozone countries , not less. We are likely to see more Europe , not less. In order for the Euro project to succeed properly, the 18, soon to be 19 counties of the Eurozone will have to converge, cementing even further the notion of a two speed Europe. Ireland has made its decision on the Eurozone, but Britain leaving the EU would make our life more difficult in so many ways from trade to travel to justice related matters.
David Cameron has not backed himself into an impossible corner on any future negotiation with Europe. Indeed his reform agenda for Europe, has significant support across EU capitals. However, too often that reform agenda comes across, rightly or wrongly, as Britain seeking to repatriate powers from Brussels to itself, rather th a n leading a reform agenda in Europe as a whole.
Unlike Ireland, Britain’s original decision to join the then EEC was taken by parliament, not by way of referendum. Two years after joining Britain did have a referendum on membership in 1975 when the Labour PM, Harold Wilson, put renegotiated terms before the electorate. On a 65% turnout 67% voted to remain in the EEC.
However, since then the European Union has undergone a major process of integration. Ireland of course has had several referendums on Europe. There is a strong feeling in Britain that this generation of British people should have the right to make a decision on the EU. A referendum in Britain may be no bad thing: it would settle the issue for another generation. It would decide once and for all, where Britain stood and the uncertainty would come to an end. From my assessment, even if the Labour Party wins the next election, without any promise for an in out referendum, they seem to be committed to a future referendum in any event, if and when European treaty change is proposed. Would it not be better to resolve this question sooner rather than later?
It is in Ireland’s clear national interest that Britain remains a member of the European Union. Britain is our most important trading partner and Ireland is also a critical export market for Britain. Indeed as David Cameron previously pointed out, Britain exports more to Ireland than it does to all the BRIC countries combined.
Of course there might be increased opportunities for Ireland to attract an even greater share of FDI if Britain leaves the EU. But the risks far outweigh the opportunities. Nobody wants a new international border between the two parts of Ireland. Nobody’s interests would be served by possible new trading regulations and restrictions between Ireland and Britain. Ireland must be prepared to work towards a positive outcome of any future British negotiations with the EU.
Ireland has benefited economically, politically and socially from its membership of the EU. A comprehensive independent analysis published in June of this year by the Centre for European Reform clearly shows that Britain has also been a net economic beneficiary of membership.
That report outlines the economic consequences for Britain in leaving the EU. There are some very interesting facts here.
Approximately 50% of Britain’s trade is with the rest of the EU while only 10% of the EU trade is with Britain. In 2013 for example British trade with the rest of the EU was £364 billion, with China it was £43 billion. These figures indicate that in any post exit negotiations Britain would be very much the more vulnerable party.
And what of the nearly 2 million British people living and working across the EU? How would a British exit help or hinder their lives? What would be their status in the event of withdrawal?
Irrespective of what happens next door, we should always remember this that the ties of kinship, family, business, and culture between these islands are the dominant connections of the British Irish relationship. Whatever happens internally in Britain or with its relationship with Europe, the British Irish relationship must remain strong and the full potential that relationship must be a priority for both governments.