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Why idea of Northern Ireland staying in the EU is seriously flawed

By John Simpson

Published 26/07/2016

John Simpson
John Simpson

The UK nation-wide referendum produced a small majority for the UK to leave the EU. The voting spread was uneven. The easy and tempting conclusion would be to acknowledge that Scotland and, separately, Northern Ireland had a majority wishing to remain in the EU.

In the quasi-federal structure that the UK has become, there is now an understandable (but complex) claim that Scotland (without going through a new independence referendum) and/or Northern Ireland should ask to negotiate an arrangement differing from the rest of the UK (or for England and Wales).

Is it conceivable that Northern Ireland and Scotland might develop a continuing EU relationship while still being parts of the UK? The official legislative answer is no. The referendum was a UK decision and it is the UK which is a member of the EU. Sub-national areas or regions have no identified status in defining EU membership.

Could the Brexit negotiations offer specific special deals? For Northern Ireland such special measures would need to take particular account of the all-Ireland dimensions. If specific advantages for special arrangements could be illustrated, imaginative man-made rules might be devised. But are there identifiable advantages?

Despite the vociferous requests for special measures, to date there have been few solid identified suggestions. The search should be guided by ways in which Brexit may work to local disadvantage. There are questions relating to governance, funding, external trade and market distortion.

The suggestions examined here have not been articulated taking account of whether the EU authorities would be prepared to deal with sub-national areas. The Scots will jib at terminology which, legalistically, does not treat Scotland as a separate country. The EU authorities may pose formidable objections because of a reluctance to deal with sub-national regions in countries such as Spain and Cyprus. That challenge would emerge eventually in any negotiations.

Asking for what? If Scotland and/or Northern Ireland was authorised to retain a separate link with the EU, an early critical question would ask how each sub-national region would contribute to the EU budget. 

Presumably, as part of the deal, a budget contribution defined as a small proportion of GDP would be expected. This would challenge the status quo in the UK arrangements, where Scotland and Northern Ireland make no explicit budget contribution.

These areas would expect to qualify for funds from the EU towards farming and regional and social policy programmes.  It would be unlikely that a separation agreement would provide a major costless financial benefit. Negotiations on a possible EU budget structure, as applied to regional areas such as NI and Scotland, would undoubtedly be problematic. Is it politically or economically conceivable that the EU, without the UK, would transfer funds to either or both of these areas?

Facilitating external trade and payments within the EU might be, conceptually, easier. The special protocol would allow Scotland and/or NI to continue to trade as within the Single Market. Beware a possible snag. Logically, the existing Single Market would continue. That brings a likely extension of rules and standards of fair trading, including a need to live with inherited rules on State Aids. There are obvious practical problems if, for example, EU farming policies led to trade price differences between UK and the EU. That could be a minefield for potential trading illegalities.

The Scottish or Northern Ireland case, as far as practical, to remain in the EU lies mainly in the implications for the economy: unimpaired trade, payments, labour mobility and improved living standards. The ambition is worthy: the implications forbidding. The presumed negative implications of Brexit are, of course, now challenged by the UK Government. The search for practical policies to ‘remain’ illustrates formidable difficulties. Short of achieving full political separation, the partial ‘remain’ strategy is seriously flawed. That conclusion has differing negative implications for both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

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