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European politics expert 'struggles to think of Brexit benefits'

Published 21/09/2016

An expert on European politics has told MLAs he struggles to think of any benefits of Brexit
An expert on European politics has told MLAs he struggles to think of any benefits of Brexit

An expert on European politics has told MLAs he struggles to think of any benefits of Brexit.

P rofessor David Phinnemore told a Stormont scrutiny committee : "To be honest I am hard pushed to identify them immediately."

The Queen's University academic also warned Northern Ireland was lagging behind other UK regions in preparing for a withdrawal from the European Union and lacked the necessary expertise to deal with many of the challenges.

He said: "We have not had any inquiry into the implications of Brexit set up; we have not necessarily had an advisory group set up as they have in Scotland and are moving to in Wales; the extent to which committees have really been engaging with the issue, hitherto, has really been very limited; and the number of reports which have been commissioned, as far as I am aware, by the different departments has been very limited as well.

"We are at a very early stage in understanding the challenges that are before us."

The comments were made during an hour-long evidence session before the Executive Office committee at Parliament Buildings.

Some 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay within the EU during the June referendum.

But overall, the UK voted to give up its EU membership by 52% to 48%.

Political leaders have repeatedly said there would be no return to a hard border with the Republic, and last week Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire said he did not envisage any introduction of border controls with Great Britain post Brexit.

However, Professor Phinnemore has argued there will be implications for the border, regardless of the outcome of future negotiations - which could impact agriculture.

"The various different arrangements which could be put in place for a UK outside the EU, as they affect Northern Ireland, will all have implications for the border," he added.

"Unless the UK is in the EU or Northern Ireland, in some way, stays in the EU there will be border controls of some description or at least the need for a capacity to control that border.

"If you have not got free movement of workers and you have hard immigration controls; that is going to have an implication for the border.

"On trade, if you are outside the customs union then there needs to be the capacity to collect the taxes; to monitor the quotas; to address the rules of origin issue.

"Even if you are in the single market and you are in the customs union, and no state has achieved that status, agriculture is still excluded. No non member state of the European Union has with the EU free trade in agriculture products."

Most of the five main political parties at Stormont supported the Remain campaign, with only the DUP backing Brexit.

And, in the wake of the shock result, separate legal challenges have been lodged in the courts by the father of a man killed by loyalist paramilitaries and a group of MLAs.

Despite their differences, Professor Phinnemore said politicians should start planning to leave the EU.

He added: "Yes, we have got within the Executive political parties who take a different perspective on what should happen next. I think they are entitled to those views.

"What we need to acknowledge is that challenges to the result may be successful, but we cannot necessarily assume that they will be and there needs to be planning for the possibility of Brexit.

"For some people it's the acceptance of what will happen; for some people it is the plan B."

Professor Phinnemore said he did not believe civil servants had the necessary expertise or experience to deal with the fallout - and said a wide variety of business, academic and farming experts should be brought on board to assist the government.

He warned: " We also need to remember that we are operating under a fairly limited time constraint because as and when Article 50 is triggered, it's two years."

Meanwhile, DUP MLAs William Irwin and Philip Logan raised questions about the negative predictions for the agriculture sector.

Mr Irwin said: "Britain is a big importer, especially in agricultural produce, would it not be in Europe's interests to deal with Britain?

"I can't see for the life of me that the Irish Republic will want to see tariffs at the borders because it will damage their economy and would actually help the Northern Ireland economy."

Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson said it was important for Northern Ireland to get ahead of the game in terms of preparedness.

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