Europe: still unknown?


(Source of graphic)

As others have noted, this might be the week that the campaign for the EU referendum finally got going. This week the Prime Minister tried to signal he was getting stuck-in to the issue of Europe, indeed on Monday he resolved to “throw himself headlong” into staying-in. On Tuesday he went even further saying he was willing to campaign “heart and soul” to keep Britain in the EU. Enda Kenny for his part was unequivocal in his support for keeping his neighbour in the club of 28, calling a British withdrawal from the EU “a major strategic risk for Ireland”.

The vote on Europe has never quite seemed top priority for any party, it was largely absent from the centre stage at most party conferences this autumn (except for UKIP of course). But few could blame parties for letting this issue slide, however crucial the issue at stake, at least for now. The main issue all parties face is simple: They don’t know when the vote will be. Officially it has to be before the end of 2017, but while that in theory leaves a whole 24 months to go most believe the Prime Minister (plus all of his cabinet who favour staying-in) wants it sometime in 2016 , with next September the most talked-about option. However the government’s options for a 2016 poll are running short, if the House or Lords’ amendments are to EU bill are taken seriously it could easily run into 2017.

All parties in the UK will have to put candidates up for a vote before then as elections for the Scottish parliament and the Assemblies in Wales, Northern Ireland and London will take place on 5 May 2016 along with over 2,000 council seats and the vote for the new mayor of London. By that time Sinn Féin will have also gone through a Dáil election, for which it has high hopes. With the option of having the EU vote on 5 May as well has already been ruled-out, a vote in September would leave parties precious-little time to gather themselves after the tumult of the previous battle, or raise the resources to fight a long or energised campaign. Few are talking about devoting time and resources with so many unknowns.

While issues at Stormont continue to dominate it is slowly getting harder to ignore the European issue altogether. Recent independent reports have warned of serious economic and social implications for Northern Ireland if it were to leave the EU. In his speech to the CBI this week Enda Kenny also gave his neighbourly warning that a Brexit could even undermine the peace process.

For most parties represented in Northern Ireland there is unlikely to be much deliberation needed on how to vote in the referendum. With Alliance, the SDLP and the Greens determinedly pro-European they will surely call loudly for an ‘IN’ vote. Meanwhile there can be little prospect of Sinn Fein calling for its voters to follow Nigel Farage and the high tories behind the charge for Brexit, but how much they will campaign in the referendum remains to be seen.

The unionist parties however aren’t as straightforward. While the UUP called for an ‘Out’ vote in 1975, it may be different this time. Mike Nesbitt mike think it safe to follow David Cameron’s reform agenda, but would that mean allowing some party members to take a different line? The party’s MEP Jim Nicholson is known in Brussels and elsewhere as a pragmatist, last month he warned there were:
“Lots of unknowns if UK votes to leave EU”

UKIP and the TUV will certainly be on the ‘Out’ side but the Assembly elections are what they will focus-on just like anyone else.

Northern Ireland’s largest party are different. When I asked a DUP insider if party conference (later this month) was likely to include any substantive debates on the EU vote I was met with predictable laughter on their part, but sooner or later it is something on which the party will have to make a call.

If Northern Ireland’s First Minister calls for the UK to leave the EU he would set himself at odds with his fellow devolved leaders in Cardiff, Edinburgh and almost certainly the Prime Minister too. In the past Peter Robinson has publicly said that Northern Ireland is better-off in the EU, but from him all the way down there is an identifiable euroscepticism within the DUP. Some elected representatives have told me in conversation that they honestly would still rather vote ‘out’ than ‘in’ and other party representatives openly called for Brexit. The DUP is not a party accustomed to splits or allowing free votes among its members, so it may need to ponder its position carefully ahead of the vote.

Prominent Northern Irish voices have already weighed-into the debate, Kate Hoey thrust a glossy ‘out’ leaflet into my hand at party conference last month, a position shared by Lord David Trimble. Meanwhile Col. Tim Collins is has gone to battle for the ‘IN’ side.

An opinion poll in August (see graphic) suggested 58% in Northern Ireland wanted to stay in the EU, with 16% wanting to leave. Whilst few expect the number of votes cast in Northern Ireland to have much of a bearing on the overall result, the implications of withdrawal could be disproportionally acute for Northern Ireland, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s a great assessment of the parties here, but let’s face it 40% of people don’t vote they will probably hold the balance of the vote here.

  • Gerry Leddy

    I trust all UK citizens living throughout the EU are included in the referendum.
    More then any of us, a withdrawal from the EU will affect their status
    and may expose them to taxes and restrictions they do not have today.

  • Kevin Breslin

    No 2 million British voices from the likes of the Republic of Ireland, Spain, Germany and France etc.will get ignored, I’m not even sure if the people of Gibraltar get their vote … even though they get to vote for a UK MEP in South England. Both Leavers and Stayers could probably agree to Gibraltar being added on the referendum, people who live in non-EU regions such as the IOM and the Channel Islands should be banned.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Interesting poll, I hadn’t seen that. Among unionists, I wonder if ultimately many will be swayed toward staying in by (1) all the main mainland party leaders going that way and (2) it being the small ‘c’ conservative choice – with a ‘no’ vote bringing a risk of the Union unravelling. Hmm not sure – not sure many will think it through to that degree.

    But I expect anyway the yes to staying in vote will win pretty easily. They just don’t have enough big political guns on their side. Cameron pushing for a yes sort of seals it. Which he will. The negotiation is a charade, undertaken for internal Tory party purposes. Apparently, according to Today on Radio 4, most European diplomats and leaders see it just as I’ve described it. They’ll give him enough to let him ‘win’ his argument, or claim credibly that he has, Britain votes yes and we move on. Big waste of time and effort – thanks, swivel-eyed nutter right-wing Tory MPs, thanks a bundle.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well let’s consider the Leave case … In Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Lichtenstein you’d have to make a bi-laterals that would involve give and take anyway, there’s no bi-pass of “EU intransigence” just the ability to nitpick this and that but at least now the UK has influence within the EU, however unfortunately the Leave case is obsessed with Take, Take, Take but are completely indifferent to any damage that a reciprocation of that Take, Take, Take arrangement might be to the UK. This was tried with the Tea Act with the United States and it escalated into the American Revolution. I really hope the UK Eurosceptic crowd aren’t trying to find solutions in the failed policies of the 18th Century.

    The fact that a prominent member of the No camp here couldn’t care to differentiate between Sweden and Switzerland says it all.

    All trade treaties are surrenders of sovereignty, you have to give up protectionism, if one country takes away barriers you need to return the favour which can take many forms from blocking labour, goods, or indeed exporting rubbish.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    exactly – the reality is, you’re bound by regulation as part of doing trade with the EU whether you’re in the EU or not.

    The Leave campaign are just bad diplomats. As you say, they seem to think a Britain outside the UK would be free to dictate terms. It doesn’t really work like that.

  • 23×7

    No, I reckon the debate had to happen so I fully support the referendum. Labour should have supported it at the last election as well.

    I think In will prevail though it cannot be taken for granted. The refugee crisis in Europe is still playing out with resulting pressures on UK immigration. Out voters will be more likely to vote than In voters. Labour under Corbyn is less committed to the EU. Left of center voters previously pro EU now have their doubts following the mistreatment of Greece. All to play for.

  • Kevin Breslin

    One of the other policies that Cameron wants is more control to national governments.

    The U.K. is a big country it must have a nineth of the seats in the European Parliament, at a purely national level if it sides with Spain, France, Sweden, Italy, Poland or Germany its influence is much bigger than trying to get 13 or 14 national governments on its side (28 countries) … … There’s the Republic of Ireland, commonwealth countries like Malta and Cyprus and then there’s Hungary for some reason, otherwise it seems to have few natural allies these days short of doing what France and Germany want anyway. It needs better diplomacy because Germany and France border half the EU countries and are in the Eurozone, if they want to upset any Franco-German stranglehold it needs Medeterran countries, it needs Scandinavian countries, it needs Greece and Eastern Europe.

    If they can’t handle that how are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa going to be any easier? The cricket playing countries (of the Commonwealth) could be as obsonate as the Ryder Cup partners (of Europe).

    Logically reducing the influence of the European Parliament and increasing the power of the national governments (who are the ones who appoint the Commissioners and Ministers anyway) doesn’t make sense for a big country, and especially one like the UK. In the Parliament UK MEPs (except Diane Dodds) from across the spectrum find likeminded people from across Europe and their speeches are translated for them. They don’t have to play the ambassador route and go to Villinus, Bratislava, Tallin, Riga and Ljubljana just to try to win a vote or two.

    Maybe returning to the days when the UK and other big countries had two Commisioners and getting a bigger 32-36 person Commission say is a better way to go.

    In terms of the left right makeup, The Conservative reformist bloc and the Christian democratic European People’s group aren’t in a majority, but they are big enough to make up 40% of the European Parliament and nearly 50% if they work with the Lib Dems ALDE group so moderate fiscal right policies are possible.

    They could alternatively try to win back interventionist powers to national governments that would please many in the centre left, the centre right, regional nationalists including even the NI unionists, the SNP and Sinn Féin and some Eurosceptics, maybe even the far left and right and get a more eccentric but more nationalistic majority that way.

    The Tories need to choose between a Common Market that reduces state interference within reasonable parity of acceptance to other Europeans or a “Single Market” that increases it and that would be in danger of becoming an Every Single Nation Market where moving British goods from the Netherlands to Bulgaria onto Turkey becomes a transcontinental nightmare.