Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

It's right to rethink as our EU gravy train runs dry

Uneasy union: David Cameron has questioned the UK’s future within the EU

David Cameron has set the Downing Street cat among a flock of European pigeons in his challenging speech on the UK's future membership of the EU.

The march towards political and fiscal union in Brussels is at odds with the current mood of many people across Europe for independence and individuality as well as expression of their language and culture.

The debate, which opened in London last week, needs to extend to every part of the UK and to the Republic, as well.

The consequences for Northern Ireland and the Republic need to be fully explored.

Our public representatives - unionist, nationalist, or whatever - should not allow their judgment to be coloured by existing grants from Brussels.

It should be in all our interests that Europe is reformed, that our independence, north and south, culturally, politically and economically, is assured and not compromised and that the bloated, wasteful bureaucracy of Brussels is cleaned up.

The danger is that the real virtue of EU membership, namely free trade and open frontiers between increasingly friendly states and regions, is being jeopardised by some totally impractical idea of European political unity.

Arguably, no part of Europe, on a per-head-of-population basis, has benefitted more from the largesse of Brussels than this island, north and south.

The Republic has proved a model for what membership of the EU can do for a small and relatively poor emerging nation, as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s.

The relative peace which we now enjoy might not have been achieved without the subsidies flowing from Brussels to improve the social fabric of the most deprived corners of our cities and countryside.

From peace and reconciliation funds to grants for infrastructure development and farmers, a lot of people, north and south, have reason to be grateful.

Even today one doesn't have to travel far to see the distinctive blue European flag on display, or a large sign next to some new project, signifying the support of EU funds.

A host of projects across Northern Ireland might never have seen the light of day. Many cross-border and cross-community groups and organisations are in existence principally because they are supported from European funding.

However, the European gravy-train is drying up. Northern Ireland is not the deeply-troubled deserving case that it was in the eyes of the Germans, French, Dutch and Spanish.

The helping hand of Europe is now extended elsewhere.

The funding pipeline is now directed towards other, more deserving corners of countries in eastern and southern Europe. The demands on European financial support are stretched to far-flung, impoverished former communist states.

How will this money be managed in future? Simply because we live on this offshore island of Europe, which has hugely profited from being a net beneficiary in the past four decades, should not stop us sympathising with many of Mr Cameron's critical observations on EU membership.

It is surely in all our interests that he sets out his requirements for membership, not least because the UK puts £9bn into the Brussels pot annually - about the same amount as it takes to run Northern Ireland.

Suspicions run deep as to whether this money is well-spent, or efficiently managed, in Europe. Opinion poll results in the last few days indicate that Mr Cameron has struck a popular chord with many voters in Britain, if not across the Irish Sea.

Here in Northern Ireland, attitudes to Europe are divided as ever along constitutional lines, between enthusiastic nationalists and euro-sceptic unionists.

The enthusiasm should be tempered. Do the people of the Republic really relish Angela Merkel approving their country's annual budget before the Irish parliament does?

Having won hard-fought independence from Britain only 90 years ago, do they really want to dilute their Irish national sovereignty in the interests of European political unity?

Are they truly happy with the extravagance of Brussels bureaucracy and the imposition of workplace rules?

As he goes forward with his demands for reform, David Cameron needs to be mindful that this is the only part of the UK which has a land border with a neighbouring country which is intensely loyal to the EU and nowhere near as driven as he is to change the circumstances of its membership.

However, no matter how good Europe has been for this island, we should turn our attention, as he has done, to the future.

The questions Mr Cameron has raised need to be answered convincingly. Otherwise the dream of a united Europe will remain just that: an impossible dream.

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