The edge of the (European) Union

Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Enda Kenny in Fermanagh last month with EC President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande

Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and Enda Kenny in Fermanagh last month with EC President Jose Manuel Barroso, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande

By Andrew Coffman-Smith

JUST two weeks after the close of Ireland’s six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union and the British House of Commons unanimous vote to hold an in/out EU referendum, Northern Ireland finds itself once again a place-apart and in-between as the only part of the UK to border the Eurozone.

The Detail asked Northern Ireland’s three Members of European Parliament (MEPs) Martina Anderson (Sinn Féin), Diane Dodds (DUP) and Jim Nicholson (UUP) to evaluate the Republic’s EU presidency, how decisions made during the Irish presidency will affect Northern Ireland, their thoughts on a possible UK-withdraw from the EU and what it could mean for Northern Ireland.To read and compare the MEPs’ full statements, click here.

Mixed verdict on Irish EU presidency

While all three MEPs commend the Irish presidency for negotiating agreements on difficult issues of agriculture, fisheries and the budget, the lone northern nationalist MEP is particularly critically of Ireland’s time at the EU’s helm.

“It would be difficult to characterise the Irish Presidency as a success,” says Ms Anderson.“While it may have been competent in bringing forward certain aspects of the business of the EU, there were a number of failures.”

While broadly happy with the “nominal” all-Ireland dimension to the presidency and the outcomes reached including plain tobacco packaging, she says the Republic failed to use the presidency to move forward the agenda on domestic violence, stop budget cuts or “break the link between sovereign and banking debt”.

“The Irish government has a duty to first and foremost protect and defend Irish citizens’ interests,” says the republican MEP. “Holding the Presidency should have provided the opportunity to do so on a number of key issues. But instead, the government seems to have abdicated its domestic responsibilities as soon it inherited the EU Presidency.”

Diane Dodds has a largely positive assessment of the Irish presidency, but with a sizeable caveat: “The economic situation facing EU citizens is still critical – now is therefore not the time for congratulatory back slapping, but for the hard work to continue that we can help our constituents meet the challenges each day brings.”

“The Irish Presidency set out with specific targets around stability, growth and jobs. While not expecting overnight results, the real success of the Irish Presidency, measured against its own targets, will be seen in the coming months, and indeed years.”

She is specifically interested in how the Irish Presidency’s priority of encouraging growth of small-and-medium enterprises (SME) will be implemented on the ground as the northern economy is “a SME economy”, she said.

Agriculture and fisheries reforms

Controversial since its inception, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) scheme has historically accounted for half of the EU budget and provides almost half of the EU farmers’ income through annual subsidiaries. CAP will now be reduced just 39% of the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) budget for the next seven years.

The agreed reforms will subsidise acreage farmed now instead of production totals and limit the amount a farm can receive at €300,000. A third of these direct payments will be dependent on meeting environment-friendly criteria such as leaving seven percent of farmland fallow to encourage wildlife, leaving pastures permanently unploughed and diversifying crops. Small farmers feel once again they are being squeezed out of the market by unfair competition and regulation that favour large, commercial farmers.

CAP’s single farm payments are vital for Northern Ireland’s farmers at a time when bank lending in Northern Ireland is down 33% since 2010. Last year, Northern Ireland farmers received £244.3m in single farm payments that in turn supports a labour force of 47,000 and the region’s largest industry, the agri-food sector which generated £3.7 b last year.

Mr Nicholson, who sits on the 45-member Agriculture and Rural Development Committee with Mrs Dodds, says he was “able to fight to ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland’s farmers were not overlooked at the negotiating table.”

“What we have now is a CAP that, while still imperfect, is flexible. This flexibility will ensure that local officials implementing the reform on the ground will have room to construct a policy that is country specific and workable at farm level in Northern Ireland.”

Mrs Dodds welcomes the agreement but remains “particularly anxious about the lack of detail regarding what was actually agreed” and she says the “complex and bureaucratic” CAP deal needs to have “regional flexibility” within the UK to match the needs of its differing regions.

On the Common Fisheries Policy that subsidizes and controls the industry through quotas, she says: “We need to allow our fishermen to fish.

“The myth is presented that fishermen are leaving stocks vulnerable, but it is in fishermen’s interest to ensure fishing is sustainable and our local fleet take this issue very seriously. Sadly because of the CFP we have much fewer boats in our local ports.

“The policy needs scrapped but failing that, there should be decentralisation of the policy from Brussels to the regions. A one size fits all policy does not work,” she said.

The agreed-upon CFP reforms still have to be finalized but include a discarding ban and attempts to stop quotas from favouring large industrial fishing over smaller operations.

European PEACE dividend

PEACE IV funding for various projects in Northern Ireland and the border region of the Republic is still being negotiated but it will be reduced from €225m (2007-2013) to €150m if not further for the next seven years. This includes funding to train and educate unemployed and alienated youth that caught the EU Commissioner for Regional Policy’s attention during last winter’s Union Jack flag protests and riots.

Mr Nicholson says: “Northern Ireland has benefited for many years from the financial support of the EU of which the rest of the UK has not been party. The most prominent example of this is the PEACE Funds.

“PEACE IV is a terrific opportunity for Northern Ireland; it is essential that education, along with the future of our young people, be prioritised as the objectives of this program are formulated.”

There are those, however, who believe that for a devolved regional government representing just 1.8m people, the NI Executive is still punching above its weight in access to EU leaders and money especially at a time of recession, austerity and continuing European expansion.

Ms Anderson has expressed concern over the reduction of PEACE funding which she said, “will undermine a lot of the good work which has been done through previous PEACE funding.”

She credits the “Joint First Ministers” for succeeding in “mitigating this reduction by negotiating as part of the recent Economic package with the British Prime Minister, a £50m contribution towards PEACE programmes. But this still leaves these projects £25million short of what was provided in the last seven years with no allowance for inflation.”

“Unfortunately, the Unionist MPs at Westminster and their MEPs are enthusiastic cheerleaders for the British government push for cuts to the EU budget as part of its general austerity agenda.

“Unless the EU Budgetary framework is revised following the next European Parliament elections the cuts will bite deeper as the years roll by.”

Britain and Northern Ireland’s EU experiences

While it still has to pass a further vote, European Parliament last week approved the first ever EU budget cut in 56 years of 5.8% in spending €144.5b this year to €135.9b for 2014. Many see the £822bseven-year budget as a concession to the larger net contributors such as the still, unsatisfied UK, whose rebate is shrinking and increasingly receives less in return in direct investment.

Martina Anderson says: “I am particularly disappointed about the poor outcome of the negotiations on the EU’s seven year budgetary framework, which simply is not fit for purpose.

“The lead advocate for cutting the EU budget was of course the British government. The draft figures for next year show that the British government has agreed a huge reduction of 22% in real terms in the field of rural development – the biggest reduction any member state will experience.”

Compared to Britain, Northern Ireland’s experience with the EU has been more positive as the region has received €7,533m in EU direct investment since 1988 . Even UKIP’s Nigel Farage acknowledged this in his campaign visit to Belfast yesterday but said Europe’s peace dividend for Northern Ireland was coming to an end. To read UKIP’s electoral ambitions for Northern Ireland click here.

The perceived (if not real) conflicting interests of Northern Ireland and Britain toward the EU shows the underlying reality of the upcoming UK referendum on whether to continue EU membership. As Northern Ireland only accounts for 2.9% of the UK population,the decision will overwhelmingly be out of locals’ hands.

As a result, as Ms Anderson acknowledges, if everyone in the North of Ireland voted to stay in the EU but the overall combined majority of Britain and North of Ireland voted to leave “then our opinion – as with those on anything – will be ignored”.

UK referendum and possible post-EU future

“We are better off in the EU,” says Anderson whose party is otherwise critical of the EU. “We recognise that the North while under British jurisdiction and particularly outside the EU, would continue to be a remote region, neglected and totally removed from the thinking of British government decision makers in Downing Street and Whitehall. Inside the EU we have the opportunity to pursue closer north-south relationships, economically, socially, politically and culturally.”

She says a British withdrawal from the EU could mean a return of border controls and tariffs; and banking, trade and travel restrictions that would have devastating economic consequences for both North of Ireland and Britain.

In addition to the “40% of ‘UK’ exports [that] go to the EU tariff-free,” Ms Anderson asks: “What would be the effect on the over 300,000 ‘UK’ Companies operating in EU countries? What effect would it have on the 50% of foreign direct investment in the ‘UK’ which originates in other EU Member states – worth £351billion per year?”

And there’s speculation that a ‘Brexit’ from the EU would mean a visible return of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic with custom check points and border patrols at the expense of trade, travel and the ‘North-South dimension’ of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Nicholoson says: “As the only part of the UK sharing a land border with another Member State, the outcome of an in/out referendum would be particularly important.

“We take for granted the ease with which we trade and travel throughout the EU and a referendum could have serious and far-reaching consequences for citizens of Northern Ireland.”

A key Northern Irish consideration for the referendum would be whether PEACE, agriculture, fisheriesand structural funding “would still be provided for these programs should it no longer come from the EU,” says the UUP MEP.

“It is vital for our farmers, fishermen, young people and communities that such funding remains available. I would want clear assurances that our citizens will not be adversely affected by the referendum, whatever the outcome of the vote.”

Ms Anderson, meanwhile, says: “In the event of Britain’s withdrawal it is unlikely that its government would replace the funding we receive directly from the EU – more reason why we should be preparing for British withdrawal from the EU by campaigning and preparing for its withdrawal from this part of Ireland also!”

Among those who are adamantfor a UK withdraw from the EU because it is “no longer in our national interest” is the DUP and Dodds’ husband, the MP Nigel Dodds, co-signed the Parliamentary Private Members Bill to hold the public referendum before 2017.

Mrs Dodds says: “Europe should be about co-operation with our European neighbours. We can maintain a healthy relationship between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, whether that is inside a reformed EU or not.

“For our local economy access to the single [EU] market is important, that is not something that can be denied. As a small region, our industry relies heavily on exports. However, exports can happen inside or outside the EU through free trade agreements.”

But Ms Anderson maintains that, even if Britain could negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU market, there would be no guarantee that most or all EU countries would be willing to offer preferential treatment to Britain.

“In the eventuality that Britain did negotiate continued free access to EU markets for its goods and services it would have to continue to apply EU rules but without having any input. This is the situation with Switzerland and Norway presently.

“Ireland would also have to consider negotiating a similar relationship with Britain. But to achieve this Britain would have to continue to contribute to the EU budget, as Norway does at present.”

If a public referendum in the UK is held on the EU– as the DUP wants –it’s clear that Northern Ireland will be along for a journey whether or not it wants to. Whatever the final destination is, especially if “Brexit” bound, it will have lasting repercussions for the province.

Says Mrs Dodds: “If we do leave to vote the EU, the people of Northern Ireland will do as they always have done amid political upheaval and change – get on with their day to day lives and do their best to make the most of the opportunities they face.”

© The Detail 2013