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'UK MEPs like myself will have a role until negotiations are over... my concern is to ensure that we get the best deal from Europe'

Published 04/07/2016

Jim Nicholson
Jim Nicholson
Jim Nicholson supporting Northern Ireland

A week on from the momentous vote to leave the European Union, Chris McCullough speaks to Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MEP, Jim Nicholson, about the implications of Brexit.

Q.  When did you start your journey in European politics, and why did you launch a career in that area?

A. I was elected as one of Northern Ireland's MEPs in 1989. I never started out intending or expecting to be a Member of the European Parliament.

The European Economic Community, as it was then known, consisted of 12 member states. This increased to 15 some years later, eventually growing to 28 when Croatia joined in 2013.

Even though before being elected as an MEP I had gained experience as an elected representative at local government, Stormont and Westminster level, when I arrived in Brussels I realised I was on a steep learning curve.

I had to develop and learn new skills, as the bulk of the work of MEPs was carried out at committee level. This is still the case now. The Agriculture Committee and Regional Affairs Committee were, in my view, the most important to Northern Ireland, and those were the two committees I majored on.

In the European Parliament, politics is, about finding consensus. You have to remember the political and security situation in Northern Ireland in 1989, so this way of working was something I wasn't used to. However, I learned the value of chipping away to achieve a goal through working with other MEPs.

Q. Your term as an MEP has potentially been cut short by the Brexit vote. How do you feel about it?

A. I was disappointed. However, I am a democrat so I accept the result. I settled upon my position to remain after thinking long and hard about what was best for Northern Ireland and the UK.

As a unionist who believes passionately in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I believed that the UK would be best protected by staying within the EU, even with its imperfections, and continuing to work with states to reform it from within.

In the run-up to the EU referendum, I feared the Scottish nationalists would try to use the outcome to their advantage. But I admit I did not envisage the speed of the response by Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

In terms of what happens next, we will now have to see how long it takes to negotiate the UK's exit. Nothing is clear at present and nothing can begin until the UK triggers Article 50, which will formally begin negotiations to shape the nature of the relationship between the UK and the other 27 member states.

I still feel UK MEPs will have a role to play as the exit process unfolds. Ultimately, the European Parliament will have to ratify whatever agreement is thrashed out. There is also a power play at present between the European Council (made up of the Member States), the European Commission (headed up by Jean-Claude Juncker) and to a certain degree the European Parliament. Also, within the European Council there are differing views as to how to move forward in negotiations with the UK.

Q. What will the results of the referendum mean for struggling farmers across Northern Ireland?

A. In truth, and this the case for many aspects of the post-Brexit landscape, no one knows for certain. In the immediate future, life will go on in terms of the support provided to farmers and the arrangements with the single market. What happens after the UK leaves the EU will ultimately depend on what agreement the UK and the rest of the EU agree and if tariffs are applied.

Much of the outcome of the negotiations depends on the Conservative leadership contest, with the various candidates having different visions for the future. I have, however, never been confident that the UK Treasury has much sympathy for agriculture, preferring instead to source cheap imports. I would welcome being proved wrong.

Many believe the support farmers receive via direct payments is a subsidy to the industry, forgetting that if it did not exist, the price paid by consumers at the checkout would be higher.

Given the lack of clarity at present, I have concerns for the industry in the long-term, with UK farmers potentially competing at a disadvantage against European farmers receiving support.

Also, what will be the relationship with the Republic of Ireland given the cross-border nature of supply chains? Will there be a hard border? Will milk and lambs continue to cross the border for processing unhindered? These are again, at this moment, all unknowns until negotiations are complete.

Q. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in the EU. Do you think they should be allowed to?

A. The outcome of the referendum must be respected and upheld. The EU is made up of nation states, not regions of countries, so there is no question of either staying in separately. I know there are some trying to hype this up in Northern Ireland and Scotland. As a unionist, I believe the UK must stick together. The UK brings a range of political, economic, social and cultural benefits for all our citizens.

We have seen the markets react and fluctuate because of the referendum's result, and this was to be expected. The issue we must concern ourselves with is the long-term growth of the economy. So far the Executive has been behind the curve when it comes to setting out a clear plan to promote growth.

Q. So what happens to your job now? Has your position now been made redundant?

A. Clearly if the UK is out of the EU, there will be no need for UK MEPs. I am experiencing a degree of deja vu. In 1985, I resigned my Westminster seat in protest against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I'm always prepared to do what I think is best for Northern Ireland, regardless of the implications.

I believe UK MEPs will have a role until the final negotiations are complete. My main concern from here on is to ensure the UK gets the best deal from Europe. The area I worry most about is that Northern Ireland gets the best deal from London, and that will be the responsibility of the Executive and Assembly. I welcome my party's proactive efforts to engage with businesses and other parts of society to consider the way forward. This contrasts with no plan from the Executive.

As they say, a week is a long time in politics, and the past few days have shown this to be the case. As we speak now, the situation is moving very fast.

Q. What will your role as an MEP entail, now that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU?

A. I believe I have a responsibility to ensure Northern Ireland gets top representation as we move into the uncharted waters of the negotiations, and to ensure that funding continues to our universities and community groups as long as the UK is a part of Europe.

When the UK does finally leave the EU, that is when there will cease to be UK MEPs. Despite the likes of Jean-Claude Juncker preventing European Commission officials from engaging with the UK until Article 50 is invoked, I believe that while the UK is still contributing to the EU's budget, we must get what we are entitled to.

Q. Will you be involved in the negotiations between the UK and the EU over their future relationship?

A. This is unknown territory, but I believe this will be carried out by London with input from Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The nature and extent of MEP input will depend on how much they are involved by Westminster or the devolved administrations.

These will be crucially important negotiations. The UK must build a strong team involving the best from within the Civil Service and from all relevant aspects of life, such as our business and finance, agriculture and research sectors.

I welcome that my party has taken the initiative to consult people, with a number of forums planned. I also note that the New Zealand government has offered to assist during trade talks.

Q. How has the Brexit been taken by your fellow MEPs from different member states?

A. As I said after the result, now is the time for cool heads and clear thinking. Many MEPs are upset this has happened. Contrary to what some parts of the media would have you believe, the UK does have friends in the EU.

Some are concerned about the possible implications for the rest of the EU. Most accept this is the will of the people of the UK and must be respected.

As we approach the summer break, we need to let the dust settle. When we return in September, there will be a new Prime Minister in place and we will see what the situation is like at that time. I am hopeful that the UK will by then know its objectives and priorities.

Q. Is it your feeling that other countries will now consider their own exit referendum?

A. Governing and opposition parties across the other 27 member states have been closely watching the process, including David Cameron's efforts to secure reforms. This is especially the case in France and Germany, where elections will take place next year, and in the Netherlands, where an election is due by spring 2017. The result has been welcomed by nationalist and anti-EU parties across Europe.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, and Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders have called for referendums in France and the Netherlands. As we have seen, the Spanish government is also keen to ensure that Scotland does not get any special treatment, given its own internal politics.

Some EU leaders see the result as a signal of the need for reform, and there are calls for the resignation of the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. You will recall that David Cameron and the Hungarian PM were the only EU leaders to oppose Mr Juncker's appointment to the top job in the European Commission. I believe Mr Juncker was a major obstacle in efforts to bring about much-needed reform and should go. His behaviour since the referendum only reinforces that view.

Q. Will the Westminster Government compensate farmers for the loss of their EU subsidies?

A. This is the big question for agriculture and our rural communities. History tells me no, but we will have to wait and see. During the campaign, several of the leading Leave campaigners made pledges about the nature of UK agricultural policy in the post-Brexit era. Direct support is only part of the picture. Access to EU markets and whether or not tariffs will be applied are key issues.

Again, there are differing views as to the way ahead on this front. The Norway option, which has access to the single market, is preferred by some. Norway does, however, have to accept freedom of movement and there are tariffs applied to agricultural and fisheries products the Norwegians export to the EU. Furthermore, Norway contributes to the EU's budget and must abide by many rules it has no say in shaping.

During the referendum campaign, Michael Gove seemed to suggest that a vote to leave was a rejection of access to the single market. Therefore, in terms of trade, we will not know until we see the final deal. Much of this hinges on the outcome of the Conservative leadership contest and the attitude of the remaining 27 member states during negotiations. Also, how high up the list of priorities for the next UK Prime Minister will agriculture actually be?

Q. As Northern Ireland's longest-serving MEP, you must have seen successes and failures in the European Parliament. Can you outline any?

A. During my time as an MEP, the UK Northern Ireland and Europe have changed dramatically. I witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain. I have seen many countries which suffered under the yoke of Communism gain freedom, with many of these nations now at the heart of NATO.

While the EU did get some things wrong, it also got a lot right by being a bastion of strength that provided support to those fledgling democracies. The EU also made a major contribution to peace-building in Northern Ireland, with more than €2bn in funding being provided to Northern Ireland and the border region of the Republic of Ireland through the PEACE Programme.

The EU did, however, enlarge too quickly and allowed the heart to rule the head when the single currency was introduced. One point I will make is that national and regional governments everywhere blamed Brussels for issues when on many occasions the fault lay with themselves. For example, despite repeated warnings, I continually witnessed both the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly gold-plating EU directives. The interpretation and implementation of legislation locally was always over the top.

Q. And what about you? What is next for Jim Nicholson?

A. For me, my first concern will always be what is next for Northern Ireland. As the EU referendum result is implemented, I have a feeling that my work in Europe is not over just yet. In the months that lie ahead, I will continue to work, along with my Ulster Unionist Party colleagues, to ensure that the UK, and within that, Northern Ireland, gets as good a deal as possible. However, after spending the past 27 years of my life back and forth between Brussels, Strasbourg and Northern Ireland, I am of course looking forward to having more free time once my work as an MEP eventually comes to an end.

I fondly recall the late Harry West, one of the Ulster Unionist Party's great former leaders, saying he would go back to the "friendly green fields of County Fermanagh". Well, for me it's the friendly green fields of County Armagh.

I am blessed to have my family, including a growing number of fantastic grandchildren, who I always enjoy spending time with. I am also a big sports fan, so it would be nice to have more time to watch the Northern Ireland football team, Manchester United and the Ulster rugby team.

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