A British referendum on EU membership will have major consequences for the region.
The returning officer’s declaration after the UK’s referendum on the European Union will be a significant moment in British and Irish history alike, with a significant impact for Northern Ireland.
A ‘yes’ vote would endorse the outcome of tough negotiations with the aim of bringing back powers to the UK. This outcome will lead to some (as yet unknown) differences between both sides of the Irish border which – if Fine Gael remains in power – will be enhanced by the Republic’s deeper integration into the euro zone.
Britain’s negotiating position will become clearer over the course of this year but the Conservative manifesto outlines three initial priorities:
• keep the single market open;
• allow national parliaments to block unwanted legislation; and
• end the UK’s treaty commitment to ever-closer union.
A ‘no’ vote will redraw the EU’s external border along the Irish border, with the potential for a greater divergence between the UK and Ireland. The situation will be unprecedented as both countries joined the then Common Market at the same time in 1973. The Irish Government, SDLP and Sinn Féin are strongly in favour of Britain’s continued EU membership as withdrawal could lead to new trade barriers and border controls.
The nearest parallels can be found in Norway (a non-member state which remains part of the European Economic Area), or Switzerland, which manages its relationship with the EU through almost 200 separate agreements. Both countries impose some customs controls (but not passport checks) at their borders.
The UUP and DUP have traditionally been Eurosceptic. Both parties support an EU referendum and will decide their own positions after the renegotiation is complete. Alliance and the Greens are strongly pro-European and back further integration e.g. joining the Schengen zone to remove passport controls across the continent.
The CBI and ICTU support EU membership but for differing reasons – the single market and protections for workers’ rights respectively. Support for withdrawal, articulated most strongly by UKIP and the TUV, is based on a variety of reasons including political sovereignty, economic protectionism, and the level of regulation required under EU law.
A withdrawal could reopen divisions within the UK. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland receive generous funding from Brussels – particularly through farm subsidies which are traditionally a low priority at Westminster. Nicola Sturgeon has called for a referendum ‘lock’ which would only allow withdrawal if there was a ‘no’ majority in all four UK nations.
The UK’s only European referendum to date was held in 1975 to endorse new terms for Common Market membership.
The Government’s case for a ‘yes’ vote was based on lower food prices (achieved through CAP reform), a reduced British financial contribution, and the UK’s continued flexibility to decide its own taxes and industrial policy. This was supported by 67 per cent of voters, including 52 per cent in Northern Ireland.