Farm Ireland

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Trouble will flow if the UK exits EU

Britain’s David Cameron leaves an EU leaders summit in Brussels during his first term as prime minister
Britain’s David Cameron leaves an EU leaders summit in Brussels during his first term as prime minister
Mairead McGuinness

Mairead McGuinness

A conservative MEP last week described the outcome of the UK election delivering single party government for his party as a "blessed surprise".

He was speaking at a European Parliament hearing on the rural economy and jobs where the importance of the CAP for UK farming and rural areas was stressed.

There was the usual criticism of the policy, its complexity and bureaucracy but no mention or discussion of UK agriculture being better off outside the EU and without the CAP. There was a discussion on the need for further CAP reform to meet the needs of the future. The current president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), Meurig Raymond, spoke passionately about the need for a more competitive agriculture, driven by an effective CAP.

The decision on the UK staying within or leaving the EU will, of course, be decided by way of referendum, now likely to be held next year rather than in 2017. The country is due to take on the EU presidency in the latter half of 2017. It might not be good politics to have a referendum hanging over the country while it is heading up the EU.

In addition to the UK's difficulties, there is the added complication that elections are scheduled for Germany and France in 2017.

So now begins the process of negotiating the UK's demands for EU reform. We have some idea of the areas in which change is being sought but until British Prime Minister David Cameron and his team come to the table with clear ideas we can only speculate about them.

One certainty is that treaty change is highly unlikely, given the short timeframe. Some in the UK have not ruled it out, but other member states are very reluctant to contemplate it.

Whatever deal is delivered by Cameron at the negotiating table will not change the minds of those who are stridently opposed to EU membership.

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Selling the deal and the many benefits of EU membership to the UK will fall to the pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party and the opposition parties.

But it will also require business, farming, civil society groups and others to get stuck into a referendum campaign and attempt to tell and sell the benefits of EU membership to a public long bombarded with the downsides.

Meanwhile, Ireland has a particular interest in the decisions of our near neighbours - both for political and economic reasons. What might a 'Brexit' mean for cross-border trade, for farmers on both sides of the border who trade with each other?

In addition free movement of people on the island of Ireland might also take a step back in the event of the UK's exit.

We sell large volumes of food into the UK and they sell significant amounts to us. Would that all continue uninhibited if the UK opts out?

They will still need our exports and we theirs, but as non-EU members Britain could not continue to enjoy the same freedom to trade in goods and services or indeed the free movement of citizens within the EU.


And as for much derided rules and regulations, I cannot see how these could be diluted by a scenario where Britain had decided to leave the EU but was still trading with the union. If the UK wanted to stay trading with its former EU partners after a 'No' vote, they would still have to meet EU standards.

And then there is the Scottish question. Scotland is pro-Europe and is demanding the planned referendum takes into account the regional results in the UK. It is unclear how that might evolve. Picture a Scottish vote for EU membership and an English vote for getting out. How would that be managed?

So, Mr Cameron faces two challenges, keeping the UK intact, and achieving the kind of results with his EU partners to enable him win a referendum that sees Britain staying in the EU.

The stakes are high for him politically. He will need, in large measure, considerable negotiating skills. Some would say he needs the compromising skills of a committed European to achieve both.

Mairead McGuinness MEP is Vice-President of the European Parliament

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