Sunday 23 October 2016

Don't be fooled, a Brexit would be a total nightmare for Ireland

Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30


It is hard to recall a time in recent decades when the politics of our neighbour has been in such turmoil.

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One in 12 Westminster MPs don't want to be there. They are the Scottish Nationalists, who won nearly every seat in a nation that in some ways has already made the psychological break with Britain.

A mere handful of the 229 opposition Labour Party MPs support their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. With his hard-left views shared by only a small fringe of the British population, he is unelectable. That fact, along with his views, will prevent Labour becoming a cohesive force as long as he remains leader.

And then there are the Tories. Once the party of power and pragmatism, they have been busy fighting with each other over Europe for three decades. The referendum on the country's EU membership is just three weeks away and now even the cabinet core of the party is openly at war. While it has long been clear that Prime Minister David Cameron would not survive if he loses the referendum on June 23, it is becoming clearer that only a solid majority in favour of remaining in the EU will stave off a challenge to his premiership.

That means that the chances of him packing his bags and moving out of Downing Street in 22 days are rising. Recent opinion polls show momentum is behind the Brexiteers. It looks as if the campaign is coming down to which side can scare voters the most, with the 'outers' playing the immigration card and the 'inners' playing the card that the economic costs of Brexit will run into thousands of pounds annually for every household.

But what would a Brexit mean for Irish households? As this column has discussed before, it would be very costly.

There is, however, a minority view that says we shouldn't worry because little will change. The blithe brigade say that Ireland has been trading with Britain for as long as people have inhabited these islands. Because that is indeed the case, they claim we will go on trading and have nothing to fear if the British vote to leave.

This argument makes as much sense as saying we needn't worry about climate change because the climate has always been changing. Perhaps a better parallel would be for someone who has always had a steady income to dismiss the possibility that their income could ever fall.

It needs to be said loud and clear that if Britain leaves, there will be more barriers to commerce than currently exist. Economists don't agree on much, but one of the few things almost all of them believe is that the more barriers there are to doing business - within countries or between countries - the less business will be done. When that happens, everyone loses, in one way or another.

Another argument put forward by those who claim that Brexit is no big risk to Ireland is that the Irish Government can use its veto to torpedo anything negative that might be proposed in negotiations on a post-Brexit EU-UK economic arrangement.

There is a rather large problem with this argument: Ireland doesn't have a veto. The EU treaties say that remaining countries negotiating with a departing country will decide on their joint position not by unanimity, but by a (qualified) majority vote. That means that if something were to come on the agenda that is detrimental to Ireland, the Government would have to assemble a blocking minority of countries to stop it being included (the rules, like most EU rules, are complicated, but around 10 of the 27 remaining countries would be needed).

While Ireland's economic interests dictate that we would seek to give the British the best possible deal so that there are the minimum number of new barriers imposed, other countries are acutely conscious of setting a precedent whereby an exiting country can get the best of both in and out worlds. These countries take the view that the EU is already as weak as it has ever been, and that to introduce a dynamic whereby members would calculate that their interests would be better served by looking for a (good) British-style Brexit deal might well lead to further departures. Ultimately, the whole EU edifice could be threatened.

AS IF that wasn't enough to cause headaches, any exit discussions would be as complicated as unscrambling a million eggs, and that is just from the technical point of view of agreeing on what new barriers to trade would be erected as Britain pulled out. The politics of it would be just as challenging, and that is assuming all the actors remain rational and there is none of the sort of recriminations that usually accompany divorces.

On the side of the remaining 27 members of the EU, Ireland included, there would be lots of horse-trading on the million points of the deal. Sitting on the British side of the table is likely to be Boris Johnson, or another Eurosceptic. Just how far the victorious Eurosceptics would want to move away from the EU remains to seen. It is not at all clear they even agree among themselves.

Make no mistake, if Britain does leave, it will be a nightmare for Ireland, and one from which we will not awake for a very long time.

Irish Independent

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