Charlie Flanagan warns against “jumping over the cliff into uncertainty” while Arlene Foster leaves door open for “deep reform”

After Sammy Wilson’s photo opportunity with Nigel Farage at a Leave.EU event and David McNarry’s weekend comments about the need for the “DUP to quit fence-sitting on the issue of leaving the EU”, today’s speeches by Belfast and Dublin ministers in front of a hundred people at Queen’s University had the potential to clarify DUP thinking. [Ed – Spoiler alert: it didn’t.]

I’ve spent more time in Belfast over the last three months than in my own constituency.

Brexit QUB Charlie Flanagan Arlene Foster from back of roomIrish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Charlie Flanagan began with some brief remarks about the latest Stormont deal. He expressed disappointment and regret that A Fresh Start didn’t include a set of proposals and a solution for dealing with the past. Across on the other side of the stage, Arlene Foster smiled when Flanagan suggested that at times the process of negotiation had stretched the patience of those involved.

Of course the European Union can be frustrating. Of course the institutions need improvement. It’s an ongoing project … Our government believes there is room for improvement … and that’s why we stand ready to support the efforts of Prime Minister Cameron to make it more effective … But our starting point is that membership of the European Union is in the interests of everyone on these islands.

Describing departure from the EU as “jumping over the cliff into uncertainty” he said that if Britain was to leave “we simply do not know how much it would mean for the border, for north/south cooperation and for the economy of all of Ireland”.

Those arguing for Brexit often state that they want the UK to take back control of its borders. Since the Anglo-Irish Agreement “we have been committed to making the border less of an impediment … tens of thousands of people cross the border daily to get to work, trade flows from one side to the other, and tourists”. Withdrawal from the EU would likely reinstate some form of border controls of some sort, light or heavy.

Flanagan also referred to EU funding streams – Common Agricultural Policy, Peace and regional programmes – that made a “significant contribution to GDP”. He said “Our economies would struggle if that contribution was suddenly shorn”, adding that “Brexit might be bad news for Foreign Direct Investment into Northern Ireland”.

He also highlighted that “membership of the European Union has been great for local universities”, mentioning how QUB, TCD and UCD have benefited from Erasmus exchanges. The minister finished:

I believe that a deal can be struck and secure the position of the UK within the European Union … benefit to EU of having UK as a firm influencer round the table and not in another room.

Finance Minister [Ed – and soon to be First Minister] Arlene Foster spoke about the need for discussion about the European Union to be “brought to the centre of public discourse”. Quoting Churchill and referring to the recent terror attacks in Paris she added:

Peace and stability in Europe remains a worthy goal … We celebrate democracy over tyranny.

QUB Brexit Arlene Foster Chralie Flanagan side view across Great Hall“The British public haven’t been consulted for forty years” and in the interim there have been many changes to the European institutions. “So it is good to have debate.”

Foster welcomed QUB’s involvement hosting the event as she sought “the broadest possible participation in the debate”.

[We] need to engage constructively with the public about the benefit of EU membership – positive and negative – and that affect of leaving would have on their lives.

Quoting Lord Brookeborough, she hoped that “somebody must be able to put it into a language that everyone understands”.

The finance minister’s speech looked at the potential to leave the European Union through a negotiated exit as well as the possibility of remaining within institutions after a “renegotiated settlement” and “deep reform”.

Tinkering at the edges will not do.

Could the United Kingdom thrive outside the European Union? Foster noted that other European countries were thriving – some in top ten of local competitiveness – outside the EU.

Exit would have major implications around trade and investment. Clarity was needed on market trading. Given our reliance on European markets, any restrictions on trade post-exit would have a large effect.

But don’t the forget trading relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU works both ways. UK is in a strong position to negotiate a mutually beneficial trade agreement with EU and Ireland.

Free from paying in Europe, she saw the potential for the UK Government to use that money for better targeted and more flexible regional aid.

Foster said that “there is a mixed response within farming community” regarding the EU. “Farmers are absolutely crippled by bureaucracy coming from the EU.”

She said that “Europe has done little to support farmers” during the current milk crisis and stated that “Commissioner Hogan could do a great deal more to support local farmers” including increasing the intervention price for milk.

People are looking for a meaningful change. It will be for people of UK, our people alone, [to make a decision on remaining or leaving]”.

QUB Brexit Charlie Flanagan and Arlene Foster at tableThe first question from the audience noted that while Charlie Flanagan had spoken about the possible impact on the north/south border, Arlene Foster had not mentioned the border as an issue.

“You cannot say what will happen to border until we see where we’re going in relation to reform agenda” she rebutted. But she waived away any suggestion that the type of border (with watchtowers) endured during the Troubles “due to the terrorist campaign” could return.

Charlie Flanagan referred positively to Arlene Foster’s desire for an evidence-based and informed debate and the need for flexibility.

While Arlene Foster’s speech was more Euro-sceptic than pro-European, she left the door open to support remaining in the EU if David Cameron can negotiate large enough reforms.

It seems likely that the DUP will wait until after any negotiations conclude before taking a party position on Brexit, and we can expect some individual elected representatives to campaign personally in the meantime.

The seventy five minute event was chaired by Daíthí O’Ceallaigh and organised by the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen’s in association with the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) and the Irish Association for Cultural, Economic and Social Relations.

@CharlieFlanagan @iiea @IrishAssoc @ PISPatQUB @DPhinnemore @QPolAtQueens

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.