Monday 20 May 2019

Ireland must fight to keep Britain in the EU - our national interest demands it

David Cameron leaving Downing Street yesterday - but is he sleepwalking Britain towards the EU exit?
David Cameron leaving Downing Street yesterday - but is he sleepwalking Britain towards the EU exit?

Brendan Halligan

It was David Cameron himself who described what is happening to Britain's relationship with Europe as "sleepwalking towards the exit". That's a pretty accurate description of developments since he became prime minister. Having started out as someone who was fed up with his party banging on about Europe, as he called it, he has finished up as the man who intends to put Britain's EU membership on the line.

He recently explained why he took the decision to hold a referendum: it was untenable to keep dodging the question he said. The reason for that, as we know, is the rise of Ukip, which wants Britain out of the EU and which is eating into the Conservative Party's support. Some two-thirds of the Conservative membership also want Britain to leave and it is this combination of forces which is pushing Britain towards the exit, with its eyes shut.

If Britain were to leave, the consequences for Ireland would be calamitous, not just for the economy but for the whole of Irish-British relations, especially for the North. The implications for a British withdrawal are analysed in-depth in 'Britain and Europe: The Endgame', a book launched today by the Institute of International and European Affairs. The authors argue that the consequences of a withdrawal would be so negative that Britain has to be kept within the EU and that Ireland should play a leading role in drafting a solution to Britain's aversion to Europe.

Britain, especially England, has never been happy with being part of Europe and is not likely to be so for the foreseeable future.

It would be best for the other member states to accept this reality and to fashion a form of membership particular to Britain that gets over its 'psychological' hang-up with Europe, one born of a unique history and culture. That will call for daring and imagination, and rewriting the rules just to accommodate Britain.

That would set a precedent; some might argue it is not worth the risk of unravelling European unity just to placate Britain. But, consider the alternative, as the book does.

Assume that Mr Cameron cannot put together a satisfactory deal with the rest of Europe and that the British public vote to leave the EU. Britain would then have to negotiate a whole new set of arrangements with the EU covering trade, in which we have a vital interest. Ideally Britain would like to retain its membership of the EU Single Market, but to impose its own border controls to stop mass immigration and "welfare tourism", as it calls it. But, like any organisation, terms and conditions apply to membership of the single market, and the free movement of people is one of them. What Britain wants is a contradiction - to have its cake and eat it.

That being so, various alternatives are trotted out by the Conservatives and Ukip as a substitute for EU membership. The most popular are modelled on Norway, Switzerland and Turkey, none of which would be available if Britain was determined to close its borders to EU citizens. Most of the British political class know this to be true and some have dismissed the alternatives as "fantasy solutions", which they are.

The only possible solution would be for Britain to negotiate a trade deal with the EU on a sector-by-sector basis, resulting in a cumbersome and ramshackle arrangement that would require a huge amount of time and diplomatic resources just to make it work. Yet if Britain went down that route, the dangers for Ireland are obvious. Custom controls would be re-introduced at the Border and business lumbered with the costly red tape that was scrapped 40 long years ago.

Our exporters would be the first to suffer and it would be a nightmare for businesses with an Irish-British supply chain, such as the agri-business sectors, one of our biggest employers.

Perhaps the most ominous threat of all would be the power-sharing arrangement in the North. Irish and British membership of the EU has been good for their joint management of the North. So, it makes economic and political sense to do whatever needs to be done to keep Britain in Europe. Yet the book is marked by a sense of foreboding. The long drawn-out saga of Britain and Europe is coming to an end. One way or the other it will be resolved in the near future by way of referendum. It could easily go wrong, as even Mr Cameron now suspects. Hence his belated wake-up call.

That call needs to be sounded here as well. No country has a greater interest than Ireland in keeping Britain in the EU. It is fundamental to our political and economic well-being. So the book proposes that Ireland should take the lead in defending not only its own interests, but those of Europe as a whole. It is well within our political and diplomatic capabilities to do so. In truth, we have no alternative but to try. Failure is not an option.

Brendan Hallligan is chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs

Irish Independent

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