Our place in Europe

Colette FitzGerald outlines how a strong partnership with Brussels is helping Northern Ireland to maximise the benefits of EU membership.

It is now clear that there will be referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, perhaps sooner rather than later. The debate will soon start so it is pertinent to consider Northern Ireland’s place in Europe and even ask the question: “What has the EU ever done for us?”

Let’s be clear. The decision on EU membership is one for the citizens of the UK. This is not a propaganda article but a timely stocktake of how Northern Ireland fits in to the bigger European picture and the nature of its engagement with the EU. Specifically, it highlights how Northern Ireland has worked closely with the EU over the lifetime of the current Executive to showcase Northern Ireland in Brussels and maximise every opportunity the EU has to offer.

Northern Ireland has benefitted generously from EU financial support over the years. The benefits are not simply about financial transfers but being able to exchange experiences and network with other European regions. That was why, in May 2007, the then Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, set up a special task force within the Commission to support the new power-sharing Executive in its efforts to secure peace through prosperity.

The aim was to encourage deeper engagement between Northern Ireland and the EU institutions. The Northern Ireland economy is heavily dependent on the public sector and the task force was about helping the Executive’s ongoing efforts towards economic restructuring. It is not primarily about money but it does point the way for Northern Ireland to take part in competitive bidding programmes such as the €80 billion Horizon 2020 research programme.

The first task force report in 2008 examined Northern Ireland’s performance in specific EU policy areas and concluded that, although less involved than in the rest of the UK and Ireland, Northern Ireland had a credible track record in general and compared well with other similar-sized EU regions. The report contained a number of recommendations in each policy area and identified a number of leads for Northern Ireland to follow up. The report also examined areas where Northern Ireland could exchange its experiences with other regions, notably in the field of conflict resolution and peace-building.

Seven years later, a review was carried out and concluded that there had been many positive outcomes in the different policy fields. Just before he left office, President Barroso stated: “The results of our joint efforts under the task force are the subject of this report. It attests to a process of progressive integration on the part of Northern Ireland into the European Union’s main policy fields.”
The establishment of the task force has led to a much greater level of EU-related activity in Northern Ireland and a restructuring of the way in which the region engages in Europe. Good working relationships have been formed in a partnership which is very much a two-way exchange. The Executive publishes an annual statement of its EU priorities for the coming year, which sets out financial and non-financial targets which the task force in Brussels uses to provide advice and guidance in the different policy areas.

Northern Ireland’s ministers and MEPs have expressed their wish to continue the level of engagement between the region and the new Juncker Commission. Two members of the new Commission – Vice-President Jyrki Katainen (who has responsibility for the EU’s €315 billion Investment Plan) and Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan – have already visited Northern Ireland and Regional Policy Commissioner Corina Cretu will be visiting at the end of June.

The Office of the Northern Ireland Executive in Brussels and my office in Belfast will continue to work closely to promote Northern Ireland in Europe and help us make the best of our EU membership for the benefit of all citizens across Northern Ireland.

Colette FitzGerald is Head of the Office of the European Commission in Northern Ireland.

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