It would be nice to be able to shrug my shoulders, sit back and observe the current UK debate on the country’s future in Europe as a detached spectator. That, I am afraid, is not an option for Ireland.
We are too close to the UK in all sorts of ways for us to be indifferent about what could be in the offing here after 23 June. We are near neighbours and friends, and this gives us a unique perspective on the current EU debate in Britain.
When I look at the coming UK poll on Europe from an Irish angle, what I see are a multiplicity of risks that seem to us to be all too real even if their precise impact can be difficult to quantify. A desire to avoid these risks and uncertainties makes us hope that the UK will decide to remain in the EU.
The first risk is the threat to our flourishing trading relationship. Irish-UK trade has blossomed during the 43 years our two countries have been members together of the European Union. Two-way trade between us now amounts to more than £1bn each week and it is growing.
It is impossible to be sure how a UK exit would affect this mutually-beneficial trade, but the implications cannot be positive. After a UK exit, trade between our two countries would be regulated as part of a new trading relationship to be negotiated between the UK and the EU. A reduction of 10 per cent in trade flows back and forth across the Irish Sea – and there are those who think the impact could be much greater – would certainly damage our two economies and put many jobs at risk in both countries.
The second risk that concerns us relates to Northern Ireland and specifically to the border between North and South in Ireland. Thanks to our EU membership, there is a single market on the island of Ireland and customs controls, which I am old enough to remember, are now a thing of the past.
If the UK were to leave the EU’s single market after a UK exit from the EU, and that now seems to be the desire of leading campaigners on the Leave side, then it seems very likely that customs controls would need to be introduced again on the Irish border. This would be a serious setback to the growth of economic ties between North and South in Ireland and to the achievement of their full potential in the years ahead.
But the risk does not end there. What if a UK exit were to generate pressure for controls on the movement of people across the border in Ireland? Such a development would, in the words of our foreign minister Charlie Flanagan, be “a nightmare of huge proportions”. The open border that exists at present benefits both parts of Ireland and both communities in Northern Ireland. It is part of the framework that supports the Northern Ireland peace process. It would be a shame to put that open border at risk.
A related risk concerns the longstanding tradition of free movement between our two countries. It is true, of course, that the Common Travel Area predates our EU membership, but this mutually-advantageous regime has only ever existed when both countries were outside the EU, or when we have both been members. No one can say what it might mean for free movement when Ireland’s land and sea borders with the UK become frontiers between an EU member state and a non-EU member.
A further concern of ours, and a very important one, is the risk to Europe stemming from a UK departure from the EU. This would be an unprecedented event, and it is difficult to see how the Union could be left unscathed by such a development.
No-one would pretend that the EU has over the years been an essence of perfection, but it does have an honourable record. It has created a unique partnership between European nations, some of which have a long history of conflict. It has helped keep the peace in Europe for more than 60 years. While it would be wrong to claim that the EU deserves all of the credit for this achievement, it has certainly played its part.
Europe since the 1950s has been a region of peace and prosperity, tolerance and respect for human rights. The contrast between the past 60 years and the decades preceding the emergence of the EU is stark indeed. And while it would be unwise to predict any repeat of the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century, it is true that the values the EU has championed since its inception are under some threat at present. We need a strong EU to help defend European values and our shared interests in a troubled, changing world. A UK departure would weaken Europe’s capacity to act effectively in global affairs.
I understand that voters have a number of arguments they need to weigh up on 23 June, but it would be remiss of us not to draw attention to the particular risks that we perceive with regard to Northern Ireland and Irish-UK relations.