Sticking to the facts on Europe?


“On-balance” to use the first Minister’s language, the DUP’s call to vote to leave the EU is likely to be largely cost-free for her party. The vote which is now set for 23 June will come just seven weeks after the Stormont Assembly elections, will mark the end of a three year cycle of elections; local Councils, Westminster and the Assembly. The EU ballot may well therefore strike voters as an epilogue or afterthought to a 3 act play, rather than a scene with any significant lines to learn or performance to performances to watch-out for.

In all likelihood party funds across Northern Ireland (and other parts of the UK) will be depleted from weeks of electioneering and activists worn-out from pounding pavements and stuffing envelopes for the third year in a row. To be sure some attention in June will be focussed on Europe, but mostly on the football (there will be no matches played on the day of the referendum in case you were wondering).

The language around the debate is likely to be considerably less emotive than the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, although probably slightly more than last referendum we had (on the alternative vote) in 2011, yet the turnout (across the UK) may well be a deciding factor.

You may wonder if it’s still worthwhile measuring where all parties are on the EU, given that it’s a referendum not an election. After all First Minister Foster’s claim statement that while her party will “On-balance” will “recommend” a vote to leave, qualifying it by saying that “every voter has the opportunity to express a view we fully expect that DUP members and voters will hold a range of differing personal views as to what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom. They are fully entitled to do so” sounds almost like a soft-whip rather than an edict or an article of faith, one would associate with the Paisely era. It is perhaps worth remembering that Peter Robinson did say that Northern Ireland was better-off in the EU (though we don’t know he’ll be voting this time around).

But where parties stand is still significant; while elections are many referenda are few and often present issues on which the average voter has little emotional interest and who then may default to political comfort zone, obeying a party or newspaper or candidate of choice. This seems to be the case in the Republic of Ireland where votes on various EU treaties have produced mixed results. In an episode of the hilarious animated series on modern Ireland, “Martin’s Life” a family from Cork discuss the Republic of Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage, the father’s main question is simply “are Fianna Fáil in it?” before concluding that he will cast his vote for “the bisexuals” in order to get rid of “that other crowd”.

This will certainly not be the first time an election on the EU has brought other matters to the fore, Ian Paisley Senior was a known opponent of the EU, but it never stopped him using the MEP elections to his own and his party’s advantage, in fact I can remember very few European elections where EU issues came to the fore (and I mean anywhere in Europe!). For all reports of the rise of pressure groups and interest lobbies political parties are still the ships in which ideas sail in modern politics, they have after all the ready manpower and resources to fight any referendum and they will be looked-to for guidance and motivation.

The complexities attached to the European Union could well mean that many voters could default to political comfort zones, listening to local representatives or trusted news sources. This is worth considering, especially for those keen to see the UK remain in the Union, who, despite often having better access to facts than their opponents would do well to walk humbly on the campaign trail. One area where the Better Together campaign in the Scottish referendum came unstuck was its reportedly ‘patronising’ tone in some of its broadcasts. Many of the facts or predictions being bandied-around by both sides will come under scrutiny, or worse, simply be labelled as ‘scaremongering’.

The famous former editor of the Guardian CP Scott once held that “comment is free, but facts are sacred” but to many in Northern Ireland, the discovery of new facts does little to alter people’s long-held beliefs and opinions, it is narratives which are often clung-to and those seeking to gain popular support on issues might want to consider how they can bring voters along with them, rather than simply handing them facts and expecting them to follow.

In last Friday’s Guardian John Harris wrote that ‘in’ campaigners needed to look at ordinary ‘out’ voters:
“Whatever their motivations, the resentments they wanted to play on are real – and rational…Those who want Britain to stay in the European Union need to acknowledge them, think deeply, and not so lightly dismiss what their side is up against. Because if they don’t, the great calamities of which they warn will be all the more likely to come to pass”.

There is simply no way the ‘In’ side can rely on all those who’ve received cash from the EU to vote their way, by that logic they could claim to have every Orangeman in the country on their side. That is why the statement by the Ulster Farmer’s Union last week, that “there was no compelling case to leave the EU” is significant, it was not a statistic pointed-out buried in a Brussels briefing, but the voice of local farmers themselves.

The UUP (on the losing ‘Out’ side in ’75) is due to decide this on Saturday how to swing on the EU vote, having a unionist voice to advocate staying in could be a real boost to that campaign. Their experience of the 1998 referendum is likely to cause them to think carefully. I began by saying the DUP might not see much harm to them in recommending an ‘Out’ vote, but to those who want to remain there is too much at stake to be complacent.

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  • aquifer

    MEPs’ pay and expenses are far above Assembly and Westminster rates.

    It is ironic to see them used for anti-EU politicking.

    I wonder where the farmer’s are on this, those that are left or now working for the bank.

    Monster tractor protests anyone?

  • Pasty

    The idea of David Cameron and the Government announcing that if the people leave then there will be border controllers and checkpoints is only likely to make more of the fools vote out than to remain in.
    All of those arguing to leave were the same people arguing that if Scotland voted for independence they would be out of the EU and that they could not then survive, so how is any different having the English take everyone out of the EU?

  • Kevin Breslin

    This bit of Open Europe does a bit of analysis on this:

    What could the UK and Ireland do to reduce the impact of Brexit?

    Our analysis suggests UK withdrawal from the EU would pose a significant economic challenge for Ireland. There are also likely to be political implications, particularly in Northern Ireland, which would also need careful consideration.

    The most important issue to address would be the arrangements for a new border. There is no reason why the UK and Ireland could not retain the Common Travel Area and so avoid the need to introduce passport controls, which would enable the continued free movement of people between the UK and Ireland. For example, the Schengen passport-free travel area currently straddles EU and non-EU members.

    Arrangements would also need to be made to minimize the impact on cross-border trade. The Swedish-Norwegian border could provide a model. The two countries share a vast land border and Sweden is in the EU, while Norway is within the European Economic Area but not in the EU (both states are within the Schengen passport-free zone). Therefore the Norway-Sweden border is a customs border even if it is not a passport border. Norway can and does set its own trade policy which differs to that of the EU.

    In practice the customs procedures on the Sweden/Norway border are governed by a 1960 Sweden/Norway/Finland cooperation agreement that eliminates duplication in customs administration. This means that either state can check goods out and into the neighboring state, which ensures minimal costs for traders.

    New border costs: According to our analysis, the majority of the costs of Brexit would stem from the imposition of a new customs border with the UK. Again, due to the significant amount of trade between the two countries, this represents a large cost to Ireland. Border costs are lasting and take the form of time lost at the border or out of pocket administrative costs of complying with customs procedures. Unlike tariffs, this is also a deadweight cost rather than a transfer.

    Even in the ‘best case’ scenario where the UK strikes a free trade agreement with the EU, there would still need to be a customs border. New costs would include demonstrating adherence to so-called ‘rules of origin’ – the rules products need to comply with in order to benefit from zero duty under free trade agreements. In our model we have assumed that under the ‘best case’ scenario, the Irish-UK border would be similar to that of Switzerland’s border with the EU, which requires exporters and importers to comply with administrative procedures but does not result in shipments being held up for hours at the border.

    So effectively even in the best case scenario a Brexit means Customs Posts because the EU and UK will demand significantly different trading rules.

    Even if the Republic of Ireland left the EU, there is no guarantee (and more significantly no demand from the Eurosceptics including local Eurosceptic Unionists) to even agree or offer a bi-national customs union.

    Effectively such a move in my view is Great Britain treating Northern Ireland as foreign territory.

  • Kevin Breslin

    There will most likely be customs posts on Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border if a Brexit does occur.

    There’s no real enthusiasm for border controls and checkpoints other than for the David McNarry’s of the world and it’s in the Necessary Evil to prevent Evil mentality even then.

    There is a “puritan demand for partition” that a EU Brexit may enforce but I’m not entirely convinced it would drive unionism.

    I take your argument however I propose a significant counter argument.

    As things stand there’s never been greater Republic of Ireland United Kingdom co-operation on trade, terrorism prevention and migration.
    The EU has boosted Ulster’s historic connections with Scotland too.

    Voting against the European Union is almost like voting against the most politically stable spiritual successor to the 1800 Britain and Ireland Union since Irish independence.

    I can see many Unionists voting for Remain on that very basis.

    The combination of the Good Friday Agreement and the European Union does mean it puts Strand 2 and Strand 3 commitments in a very different and awkward light. I think there is a genuine amount of good will and good faith to keep many of these “unions” open.

    The question we would need to face up to if this quagmire ever comes to fruition quite adequately put as “Quis separabit”

    How much separatism and splendid isolation is needed before it is time to face the world as it is again?

    And another thing if the CTA were to be sacrificed of course it would be easier to crack down indiscriminately on movement from NI & ROI (i.e. Ireland) to GB than to enforce a physical border, as was the case during the war years.

    So I can’t see CTA being scrapped on this basis, if it does it plays to triumphalist forms of Irish nationalism, and many unionists wouldn’t be happy about that.

  • Paul Hagan

    I wonder how much Arlene actually wants Brexit, to be honest Boris Johnson & Nigel Farage do well out of the situation as it is

  • Kevin Breslin

    Pretty much she could go down to Belcoo-Blacklion customs post area and say what benefit a Brexit?

    Neither Arlene or Boris are solid outs, it seems the Leave side will be left to those who think discriminating against migrants and getting free trade deals with China which have poor human rights record are going to fix things.

    Doesn’t Sammy Wilson back fracking too?

  • Tochais Siorai

    Well, I don’t know about a customs post but that nice shiny ‘Welcome to Northern Ireland’ sign didn’t last too long in Belcoo.
    The DUP as a whole are pretty much pro-fracking.

  • Roger

    Have you come across any decent analysis on the likelihood of post ‘UK-exit’ customs posts on the Ireland-United Kingdom border?

    I will have a look around myself.

  • Roger

    I can’t understanding your last sentence….Well, I understand the words but not how you come to that conclusion.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well what I am saying is that if Northern Ireland citizens are left paying customs charges for inter-island trade, GB would take for granted, it would feel like alienation i.e treating these like foreigners. However customs and trade are a reserved matter so NIO has to deal with the issue, so the matter itself would have to be discussed round a cabinet table.
    Hypothetically though the agreement of such a customs union could be administered in a beefed up Council of the Isles, and even North-South ministerial council on some levels.

    Purely as a contingency matter.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Very likely …
    Norway, Switzerland & Leichenstine, Kalingrad and the rest of Russia, Andorra, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Belarus, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Ukraine, possibly Moldova too not sure if it has EU borders though … Even Some EU extempt parts of EU countries even may have them.

    I think San Marino and VCC are in the EU customs union with Turkey, Monaco may be as well. I’m fairly sure the Brittish Crown dependencies are exempt as is Northern Cyprus.

    Secondly look at the presidence on the border before both nations joined the EEC.

  • Roger

    …if Northern Ireland citizens are left paying customs charges for inter-island trade, GB would take for granted, it would feel like alienation i.e treating these like foreigners.

    I translate the above to how I understand it:

    …if United Kingdom citizens in Northern Ireland are left paying customs charges for importing goods from Ireland, the United Kingdom take takes something (?) for granted and would be treating (?) like foreigners

    I’m no clearer how you think the UK would be treating its citizens in NI as foreigners if it requires all people bringing goods from Ireland into the UK (i.e. all parts of UK) to clear customs.

  • Kevin Breslin

    What I was saying I wasn’t very enthusiastic about, I think there may be a bit of ignorance in the debate about custom posts, because if people thought customs posts they may think coastal ports not the Irish land border.

    It would be an oddity to have free movement of people but no free movement of goods. Strange, foreign, alien … Something more of a problem for continentals than the “British Isles”.

    No one in the Leave side is mentioning this, but it’s not great to mention the negatives and obstacles.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Simply put many in GB will think custom posts between two parts of Ireland is a non-issue. If it is treated like a non-issue their veiws are Britain centric, not UK centric.

  • Roger

    The UK makes a decision to impose custom posts on its borders…which include its borders with Ireland. And that somehow means the UK is treating its citizens in UKNI as foreigners? I guess I’ve explored the logic of your thinking insofar as I could now….but I really don’t see any. We will have to look at things differently on this one. Imposing custom posts on ones border just doesn’t amount to that to my mind. Thanks for the explanations though.

    For extra clarity, I do not disagree that it is a Britain centric policy….I think it’s about 97 per cent of the UK population that live in GB. So, it’s not surprising the policies are not UKNI centric….But that doesn’t amount to treating UKNI people as foreigners in my book…..That’s a natural downside for UKNI being part of a much bigger unit than a UI….

  • Roger

    I gave a thumbs up to your post of analysis on customs posts. The more I’ve heard on the topic, the more it seems to me that if UK leave, there will indeed need to be some degree of customs re-imposed between Ireland and the UK. UK.

    I don’t think it will be an oddity to have free movement of people but not goods…there’s a few examples of that already around Europe – Switzerland being one.

    I agree with you that the whole customs post issue isn’t getting enough publicity….I think it’s really irresponsible of the DUP to advocate a policy that will mean UKNI firms will have to face customs and double VAT procedures just doing business with firms in IRL….. To my logic, that cannot be good for the UKNI economy. It is a major step backward.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It was just an expression.