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Be careful what you wish for on European vote

By Liam Clarke

Published 09/04/2015

Tony Blair hit the nail on the head - Europe is one of the biggest issues in the general election in Britain. Here in Northern Ireland, leaving the EU would pose particular challenges for us. In fact, we might be better voting on Europe than either the border or local issues.

Britain has a lot of trade with Europe, but we have more proportionately and that carries implications. We have a land border with the Republic and will suffer serious repercussions if trade or travel is disrupted.

It doesn't need to be. We already have a different currency, but tariff barriers would be a problem if we leave Europe.

It can be argued, as the Eurosceptics argue, that if we left, Britain would pay less money to Europe and so they would subsidise us more. That shows a touching faith in human nature.

Any money saved is likely to be doled out very grudgingly by the Treasury unless we get it tied down now.

We depend heavily on agriculture and that is where the bulk of European spen- ding goes. We have so far drawn about £4bn from EU funds.

Whether and how that would all be handled needs to be carefully worked out and candidates should be pressed on it. We can't do it on a wing and a prayer.

As Mr Blair pointed out, David Cameron, the prime minister, was the man who really put a Brixit (British exit) "on the agenda" by promising a renegotiation of EU membership and a referendum on the outcome if he is returned as prime minister. That was a bid to blunt the Ukip electoral threat to his party.

The ploy may have worked; Ukip is slipping, but the referendum is now a firm commitment Mr Cameron will have difficulty shaking if he is back in Downing Street.

The DUP also wants an EU referendum and has put it on their list of priorities to seek from the new prime minister in return for support.

That makes it more likely that they will support the Tories, though Peter Robinson, the party leader, has told me that if they were offered more on other fronts, they might not insist on this.

Diane Dodds, the DUP MEP, has been pretty good at extracting money from Europe for local farmers, businesses, churches and community groups. They would know the system, so it would be wrong to assume the party has no answers, or no strategy.

We need to hear these answers. The DUP and other candidates should be asked how high they set the bar for remaining in Europe and how they would handle the impact if we leave.

British voters, with a less agricultural economy and less EU aid, will cast their ballot on a fundamentally different basis from us.

We need to work out now whether this referendum is something we should be asking for in the first place.

Belfast Telegraph

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