Oireachtas Committee raises ‘Brexit’ concerns

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With the Conservative Party marching back into Government in May with a firm manifesto commitment to an ‘In-Out’ referendum on the UK’s EU membership, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs has moved quickly to examine the possible implications of ‘Brexit’ for Ireland, north and south.

The Joint Committee published its report ‘UK/EU Future Relationship: Implications for Ireland’ in June of this year including a formal launch event in the Irish embassy in London. In producing the report the Committee took evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals and heard extensively from expert witnesses in business and acadaemia, Irish economists such as Colm McCarthy and Joe Durkan, and politicians including UK parliamentarians such as leading euro-sceptic MP Bill Cash.

The result was a 46 page report containing some 24 initial recommendations: However, despite making 24 recommendations the report overall tended to reflect some of the facts and arguments the Committee had encountered in its deliberations, rather than presenting any definitive or detailed analysis of each issue.

Although Joint Committee chairman, Labour TD Dominic Hannigan emphasised that the actual question of whether Britain stayed in the EU or departed was a decision solely for the British people, the Committee’s starting position was that any change in the UK/EU relationship could have profound implications for Ireland and therefore merited examination. The Committee also felt that an EU without Britain effectively weakened both the EU and Ireland and indicated that it would therefore be ‘playing its part’ in the debate.

Deputy Hannigan summarised: “The Joint Committee on European Union Affairs considers the status of the UK’s membership with the EU and any change in that status to be of such importance to Ireland that it was incumbent on the Committee to examine this issue and report on our findings from an Irish perspective. Indeed it is the view of the Committee that the Irish government has a role to play in voicing its opinion, in particular to the Irish community in the UK and UK citizens in Ireland, on the impact a UK exit would have on Ireland.”

This view ultimately, informs the central recommendation of the Committee’s report which is that because the UK’s relationship with the EU is a ‘vital national interest’ for Ireland, the Irish Government should ‘have a voice’ in any discussions/negotiations the UK and EU are having about changing their relationship. Also the EU should recognise the unique position of Northern Ireland between the UK and Ireland and recognise that again the Irish government should have a voice in any discussions between the EU and the UK which impacted on Northern Ireland.

The report highlights extensively aspects of the unique relationship between Britain and Ireland. The UK is Ireland’s single most important trading partner and Ireland is Britain’s 5th most important partner. Almost a quarter of the UK population is reckoned to have a connection with the wider Irish diaspora and there are over 112,000 UK citizens currently living in Ireland. Irish citizens are deemed ‘non-foreign aliens’, a status not afforded by the UK to any other EU members and the two countries have a Common Travel Area (CMA) which was established long before the two countries joined the EU together in 1973.

The second major thematic recommendation therefore in the Joint Committee Report is that the special arrangements that currently exist between the UK and Ireland, including the Common Travel Area, other bilateral agreements and their current joint approach to Northern Ireland, must survive any change in the relationship between the UK and Europe.

In addition the Committee noted how Britain and Ireland had worked closely together in the EU and how there has been a significant EU dimension to the progress made by the two governments in Northern Ireland. This included EU ‘Peace’ funding and other economic support as well as EU legitimisation of the Good Friday Agreement and the institutional arrangements it sponsored including North/South bodies. The report makes a number of recommendations about Northern Ireland and in particular that the North/South institutions should be protected.

Dominic Hannigan

The border with Northern Ireland
In addition to maintaining the common travel arrangements – where the report recommends the existing memorandum of understanding between the UK and Ireland should be placed on a statutory footing – there is considerable concern about the possible impact of ‘Brexit’ on the border with Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland border is the EU’s only land border with the UK and would become an EU external border in the event of UK exit. Notwithstanding the UK’s current concerns about immigration, the Joint Committee Report recommends that: “No external EU border is established on the island of Ireland separating North from South.”

In addition to examining the implications of ‘Brexit’ in terms of free movement and the border and the right of Ireland to participate in discussions, the Committee Report also makes a number of recommendations relating to economic interdependence and cooperation in the justice area. On the economic side, recommendations include ensuring that there is still free movement of goods and services and capital between Britain and Ireland in the event of a UK exit and that Ireland’s IFSC is also protected from isolation. Similarly that the current close cooperation in criminal justice affairs is preserved whatever the UK’s relationship with the EU might be in the future.

The need for action
A very strong theme running through the Joint Committee’s recommendations is the need for Ireland’s government to be proactive in preparing for the possible implications of ‘Brexit’ and also to raise awareness of those implications with Irish people at home and abroad and with Irish business. The Government should engage now with the EU to make the question of UK exit a Europe-wide issue and to ensure Ireland gets its rightful place at the table. Further work should also be carried out by the Government in making detailed assessments of the implications of UK exit for each important economic sector.

Overall, the Joint Oireachtas Committee’s report on the implications of ‘Brexit’ does not provide very many actual solutions and is fairly broad-brush in its approach. Indeed some of its recommendations are aspirational to the point where even with much goodwill they could be difficult to implement. However the Committee has made a very useful contribution in providing a good initial overview of the issues that arise for Ireland should the UK’s relationship with the EU change. And although the referendum may not take place until the end of 2017, the Irish Government has been put on notice that the work starts now.

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