THE Government is worried about the nightmare scenarios thrown up by British Prime Minister David Cameron's pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership.
The British leader announced the ‘in or out’ vote would be held before 2017, provided his Conservative Party wins the next general election. Although some ministers welcomed the certainty finally provided on Mr Cameron's position, the British move has enormous implications for Ireland:
- The possible departure of a close ally from the EU table;
- The changes in the relationship with our largest trading partner;
- The risk of a weakened Sterling harming exports and tourism;
- The debate at EU level shifting from the economy to membership;
- The uncertainty affecting growth and jobs;
- The likely changes to major EU treaties to allow Britain to opt-out from some areas;
- The need for a referendum in Ireland on the new rules.
Mr Cameron wants Britain to remain a member of the EU and the single market – but to renegotiate membership.
But EU legal experts say the types of changes the British are likely to demand, around specific opt-outs from areas of responsibility, would require treaty change.
And EU heavy-hitters like Germany and France reacted negatively to the British announcement – and insisted there would be no cherry-picking of EU membership.
Ahead of the delivery of his speech yesterday, Mr Cameron rang Mr Kenny on Tuesday afternoon to give him advance notice of what he was going to say.
The two leaders spoke for just under a quarter of an hour.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said he thought the EU was "better with Britain in it" and Britain was better being in the EU.
Given the close connections between the two countries, he said the Government wanted to see Britain as a "fully engaged member of the EU".
"Also, I think it is important that our focus in the European Union at this stage does not get deflected into a debate about who's in and who's out, and a debate about changing the conditions of membership for some individual countries.
"I think the focus of our debate in Europe right now, and that includes, I think, Britain's focus in Europe, has to be about what we need to do in order to get the European economy to grow and to generate the employment that is in the interest of all our citizens," he said.
"Obviously Ireland has concerns about any situation that would see the UK take a different direction to our own, but I suppose the challenge now will be to ensure that we use all our influence to ensure that Britain continues to be a strong and active member," he said.
Transport Minister Leo Varadkar welcomed the clarity of Mr Cameron, saying he wanted Britain to remain a member of the EU.
"What we would all like to see is an end to Britain's ambiguity about their membership of the EU," he said.
Mr Kenny recently described a British departure from the EU as "catastrophic".
Last night, a spokesman for Mr Kenny repeated it was up to the British to decide about their membership.
"As the Taoiseach has stated on a number of occasions, this is a matter for the British people to decide, but he is of the view that it is in Europe and Britain's interests that Britain remains central to the European project."
Also speaking in Davos, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said he expected Britain to vote to remain inside Europe and said there was some merit to asking people whether they wanted to be in or out.