Opinion: What happens now

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Following the result of the Referendum on UK membership of the EU, the Chair of European Movement in Northern Ireland, Ian Parsley, tries to assess what leaving the EU now means for Northern Ireland.

Many people are asking now what the vote to leave the EU means to them. Of course, the answer is always “It depends” – on what the UK’s new relationship with the EU is, on when it is resolved, and on what exposure households and organisations have to the EU.

EU is, for the time being, an association of 28 member states.
EU is, for the time being, an association of 28 member states.

One point needs clarification: the EU is an association of 28 member states. If one member state decides to withdraw, then all of its territory ceases to fall within the EU, and its citizens cease to be EU citizens. What precisely this means depends on the exact nature of the relationship subsequently negotiated, but we should be in no doubt that if the UK proceeds to leave the EU, the only way for Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain within the EU is to leave the UK.

Article 50

It should not be doubted either that the UK-wide vote will be taken as an instruction by the new Prime Minister to begin negotiations on withdrawal from the EU. It is anyone’s guess how these negotiations will be carried out, or what outcome they will arrive at. We are hearing much about ‘Article 50’, which may be invoked by the Prime Minister as the most obvious means of withdrawal. However, this gives the UK and the EU only two years to negotiate terms. Thus, such a move would instantly weaken the UK’s negotiating hand, as it would be out at the end of two years even if nothing had been agreed.

EU Funding in Northern Ireland

A disproportionate number of people in Northern Ireland will be exposed in some way to EU funding.

In an extreme case, that the UK leaves the EU relatively quickly with no subsequent trade deal in place, this funding would simply disappear. This possibility has to be considered, but is unlikely.

Another possibility is that the UK will leave the EU but remain in the EEA (the so-called “Norway Model”), thus maintaining free movement, a contribution to EU budget (but also access to Structural Funds) and a requirement to implement some (but not all) EU Law. This would mean that some current funding (e.g. PEACE) would probably be secure, and that there would be some chance of maintaining access to specific other funding streams, albeit at a reduced level (e.g. for business R&D or infrastructure).

Unfortunately, the downgrade in the UK’s credit rating alone had the effect of requiring the UK now to pay more merely to service the interest on its debt than it pays into the EU budget. Notably, even in the EEA, there is no access to Rural Development Funds (such as CAP), which will now in effect have to be replaced from within Northern Ireland’s devolved budget.

Other scenarios

It remains possible, though unlikely, that the UK will remain within the EU in the end. An incoming Prime Minister, faced with economic recession and constitutional chaos (and, thus, a tarnished legacy), may seek a new EU deal and put it back to consultation with the people. However, even this may mean some withholding of EU funds and continued economic uncertainty during negotiations.

NI Executive

Having evidently failed, disgracefully, to come up with any contingency for a Leave victory, despite the fact one of the Executive parties was advocating one, sacrifices will have to be made so that the business of government can proceed smoothly from September.

Firstly, Committees should be continuing to meet – even if by allowing deputation of members by party colleagues in some cases. These meetings should have the specific initial objective of assessing exactly what the exposure is of each Department to the European Union. Are there funds, information streams, knowledge exchanges which are endangered by leaving?

Once this work is done (and there is no reason it should not be by early August), the Executive should then assess which aspects of our relationship with the EU are essential, and which can be replaced.

EU benefits kept/matched

This will then determine the position the Executive takes in advocating for Northern Ireland when the UK/EU negotiations take place. How important is it to our young people’s futures that our further education institutions (and students) are treated as if they were in the EU; to our small businesses trading across the border that we remain within the Customs Union; to our exporters that we remain within the Single Market?

What exactly do we need to do to maintain access to European Clinical Trials, pan-European medical research and interventions for rare conditions?

What do we propose to do about the European Arrest Warrant, access to shared intelligence and hot pursuit protocols which will keep us safe from international crime and terrorism? Is there even a case for Northern Ireland-only work visas, EU customs access or reciprocal health care arrangements?

Having established what aspects of EU membership are vital to Northern Ireland’s future, we can then pursue our case. We may be able to make common cause with Scotland, or even Gibraltar or London, on many of these issues. We should almost certainly be arguing for a UK Constitutional Convention and an all-island Civic Forum to help this work and ensure compromise in key areas.

The Executive Office in Brussels should long ago have been building bridges with other European regions in similar positions to add to pressure across the EU for a “Special Access Arrangement” for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and geographical location. We also need to consider implications for corporation tax, infrastructure investment and skills development – but this must be done as part of an overall strategy, not in isolation.

The issues, for households, businesses and service deliverers across Northern Ireland, are far too important to be ignored for two months. Contingency plans must be put in place now, and delivered upon immediately in September.

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