Long-serving DUP MEP and self-professed Eurosceptic, Diane Dodds, talks with David Whelan on the need for an over-arching free trade agreement, Brexit’s impact on the fisheries and agriculture sectors and her future outside of the European Parliament.
With less than a year to go until the UK exits the institutions of the European Union, Diane Dodds, an MEP since 2009, outlines that a winding down process for the UK’s MEPs from parliamentary duties is not on the cards.
A member of the Parliament’s Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, Committee on Fisheries and a substitute for the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, Dodds believes that her role is as, if not more, important now than ever.
“Parliament is still a legislative body and therefore my job is to try and impact on that legislation. We recognise that in future years the legislation being created now may be adopted by the UK or the UK will follow its implications. We also recognise that this will be our competing market and we don’t want legislation that will put us at a disadvantage.”
Dodds describes the mood in Brussels as “business-like” rather than hostile, adding that she recognises a sadness from some MEPs, particularly those from the Baltic region and eastern Europe, that the UK is leaving.
“They look to the UK as major security partners and this is where I reiterate that while we are leaving the institutions of the European Union, we are not leaving Europe and certainly not leaving the security of Europe. We will always be there to work side-by-side on the important matters such as security, trade and international relations; but we will do that as an autonomous nation.”
Despite being a strong advocate for the leave campaign, Dodds recognises the positive contribution the EU has had in Northern Ireland. Elements such as PEACE funding, which she describes as the only fund of its kind and an important fund to help build communities. However, she is also sceptical about the level of credit given to the EU’s influence.
“Be under no illusion, the people who brought peace to Northern Ireland are the communities who suffered so much and who gave up so much for peace. They are the people who continue to work day in and day out for peace and they are the security forces who stood in the gap against a very vile terrorist campaign.
“Undoubtedly, Europe has done good in the form of PEACE funding, the European Regional Development Fund, the cohesion funds and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) but remember this is not money which falls from a tree and lands in Brussels. These are our taxes going to Brussels that we are claiming back and of course, the UK is a net contributor and always has been a net contributor to the European Union.”
When put to her that while the UK was recognised as a net contributor, Northern Ireland was largely viewed as a net beneficiary of the EU, Dodds states that such an assertion “is up for debate”.
Assessing the move from phase one to phase two of the Brexit negotiations, Dodds states that determining significant progress had been made was extremely important for Northern Ireland and businesses here. Most notably, she highlights the significance of recognising both north/south trade and also that of east/west.
Emphasising that she meets regularly with Northern Ireland’s business community, Dodds says that all have impressed upon her the “vital importance” of the UK internal market to businesses, families and communities.
“It is absolutely crucial that we realise that 60 per cent of Northern Ireland’s external sales – everything we grow and produce – finds a market in Great Britain (GB). It would be economically catastrophic, as well as constitutionally wrong to put barriers between us and our main market.”
Dodds states that this fact does not undermine the importance of trade between tha north and south in Ireland. “None of us want to go back. We want co-operation, we want good relations and we want good economic trade between the two areas. But, it must be recognised that we sell more to GB than we do to the Republic of Ireland, the rest of Europe and the rest of the world put together. We now have the significance of the GB market underscored and in writing that going forward it always has to be considered. That it is vital to us.”
Undoubtedly the future shape of the border in Ireland has been the major sticking point in the UK-EU negotiations. Currently, it remains an outstanding issue as the EU and the UK hammer out the terms of a two-year transition period.
Dodds believes the answer to the border solution lies in the overall context of a deal rather than a “narrow conversation”. “We want trade co-operation and we want a seamless border. When we start to look at it in the overall context we’ll start to see how a deal might play out, for example, what makes for a frictionless border at Newry will also make for a frictionless border at Dover.
“That’s not to diminish our particular political and geographic issues but I believe that within the overall context of a deal, we’ll find solutions on both those levels.”
Highlighting her belief that a good trade deal is as important to the Republic of Ireland, she says: “Around two-thirds of all Irish exports to the continent go via the landbridge Holyhead to Dover, so if we are talking about solutions for the border it is important that those solutions are found at a UK basis, both for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. At times we have got ourselves into a very narrow conversation but I think we’ll find more resolutions by looking at the broader context.”
That broader context, she believes, will involve the UK continuing to pay for access to programmes which it deems cost-effective or desirable, Dodds lists EU research programmes, Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus Programme as examples of areas where there is mutual benefit.
However, while agreement in such areas is well advanced, Dodds does not believe both parties are beyond a no deal scenario. “There are still some very difficult issues to resolve but the prospect of a no deal is no longer as great as it was. The UK Government must plan for all eventualities because there may be an element of the deal that is simply not palatable. So, I don’t think we are past the point of no return but we have made good progress and understand that a great deal more work must be done before we can say the deal is settled.”
In December 2017, a proposed deal offering regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland was rejected at the last minute by Prime Minister Theresa May, reportedly due to pressure from their confidence and supply partners the DUP. The deal, which effectively would have seen Northern Ireland remain in the customs union and single market, unlike the rest of the UK, divided opinion. Those in favour saw it as an opportunity for Northern Ireland to benefit from the best of both worlds in access to both the EU and UK market, while those against, such as Dodds, believed that such a deal would separate Northern Ireland economically and politically from the rest of the United Kingdom.
“At times we have got ourselves into a very narrow conversation but I think we’ll find more resolutions by looking at the broader context.”
Quizzed on whether she recognised the economic benefits access to both markets could have offered, Dodds says: “What we will have at the end of this is access to both markets because we will have a free trade deal, covering all goods. At the minute the EU are talking about limited access for services but I think that will expand throughout time. Access to markets will come and I think the best access to markets is through a free trade deal.”
Dodds is angry that the EU have continued to pursue the avenue of Northern Ireland having differing terms from the rest of the UK, after they wrote the ‘backstop’ option in to the draft legal text, which would see a “common regulatory area” across Ireland, if a deal is not reached.
“It is a non-runner,” she states. “Imagine the nerve of any unelected bureaucrat from the EU Commission saying to people in Northern Ireland that we will hive you off and you can be in a common regulatory area with the rest of Ireland and pay tariffs between yourselves and the UK or be subject to border checks between yourselves and the UK.”
Prime Minister Theresa May described the proposed backstop as a threat to the UK’s constitutional integrity, adding: “No UK Prime Minister could ever agree to this.”
Dodds says: “Again, it would be constitutionally wrong and economically disastrous. The EU decide over and over again that they would like to be ‘creative’ with the solution for Northern Ireland but really I think being creative means being coercive.”
Dodds believes that the EU were shocked by the “vehemence” at which the backstop proposal was rejected, adding: “What we need to do is hold our nerve, get on with the negotiation, get a free trade deal and then look at what issues are left to resolve.”
Fisheries and agriculture
Dodds does not sense any buyer’s remorse from the two sectors which she has long championed in Europe and instead feels the mood is one of “let’s get on with it”.
Fishermen and farmers are often regarded as Eurosceptics because of the control the EU places on their sectors. However, recently fishermen in Northern Ireland expressed anger when it was revealed that rather that regain control over its fishing waters in March 2019, the UK will be “consulted” on fish quotas during the interim period until 2021.
“There is no doubt that the industry is disappointed by what happened in the transition deal. What we would like to see our government commit to is a fisheries policy that is free from the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and a UK that asserts its own independence as a coastal state. It is then able to take control of its territorial waters and then negotiate with other states.
“Fishermen are also businessmen and are very accustomed to negotiations and the trading of quota. They are not saying to anybody that you will never be allowed into British waters or that they want to hoover up all the fish in these waters for themselves. They are saying that going forward they want a fishing policy that is independent of the EU, that is sustainable for generations to come and that is environmentally friendly.”
On agriculture, Dodds says that while Brexit presents challenges for the sector, it also offers opportunities in terms of greater demand from the UK internal market. Again, she outlines her belief that a free trade deal would negate many of the concerns currently being raised around market access and tariffs.
A major concern for farmers has been around CAP payments and to what extent support will exist post-Brexit. Dodds outlines that as part of the DUP’s confidence and supply deal with the UK Government, current levels of CAP payments are committed to 2022.
“We realise the importance of securing CAP payments to farmers throughout the UK. What this commitment to 2022 does is give us time to develop our own UK-wide agricultural policy. Once we know the details of a British Agricultural Bill then I think each devolved region will be able to adapt it and make sure it fits to their particular agendas. That’s why it is important that we have devolution restored in Northern Ireland, something my party has been fighting for.”
Looking beyond Brexit, Dodds believes it would be wrong for Northern Ireland to retain elected representatives in the EU institutions after the UK has left. Instead she outlines that during the proposed implementation period she will be part of a party-team involved in working on a huge volume of work in relation to future trade agreements.
Asked whether a role in elected politics remains an option, she concludes: “I joined the DUP during university and will always be a DUP activist advocating first and foremost for the Union. Politics is an unusual occupation in that it can take you places that you never expected to be. Working in the EU parliament, representing Northern Ireland, was a great privilege and one that I have enjoyed. Now it is time to move on and I’m sure I will find a niche somewhere along the line.”