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EU referendum: Europe is deeply flawed, but we'd be lost without it

Belfast Telegraph comment

Published 22/06/2016

Tomorrow's vote on whether or not the UK should remain within the European Union is the most important ballot here in Northern Ireland since the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement.

In essence, the same critical decision is at stake. It is about what sort of future are we going to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.

The fact that the EU referendum did not really catch fire in Northern Ireland - certainly, it was conducted in a much less inflammatory and controversial manner than in England - should not undermine the importance of which way people cast their vote.

It is imperative that as many people as possible in the province turn out to vote.

Northern Ireland may be a peripheral region of Europe, but the electorate must weigh up the very significant role that the EU plays in all facets of our lives.

It has to be conceded that the EU as currently configured is an unwieldy, undemocratic and overly bureaucratic institution that requires reform. On that the Remain and Leave camps are at one.

But that is not to damn it irrevocably, and certainly not when it comes to its influence on Northern Ireland. Instead, we should look at the evidence of the benefits of EU membership to the province.

In 2013/14 38,000 farmers and rural projects shared almost £350m in European funding under the Common Agriculture Policy.

Agriculture and agri-foods are our biggest industries, and not only is that funding vital to those farmers who work the land, but the free movement of people throughout Europe has provided the sector with economic labour which would otherwise have been difficult to find.

Northern Ireland is a province in transition, and there are encouraging signs that the political arrangements at Stormont are bedding down into a more constructive and energetic phase.

While there has been debate about the impact of a Brexit vote, what is irrefutable is that European funding has played an enormously beneficial role in creating a more stable and inclusive society.

The PEACE IV funds, which runs until 2020, will pump around £176m into projects throughout the province and in the border regions.

While it is impossible to be empirically precise on the impact of such projects since such funding first became available in 1995, it is undeniable that it has been consistently positive, changing attitudes at a grassroots level and aiding cross-community discussion and work.

Leave campaigners argue that the UK puts more into EU coffers than it receives back, and that that extra money could replace the subsidies and grants already given from Brussels. In theory, that is an appealing prospect, but it is totally untested and there is no precedent for the Treasury being over-generous, never mind matching pound for pound what previously would have come from the EU.

But EU membership is not simply about handouts, but rather about a hand-up.

Almost every reputable financial and economic forecasting body has come down in favour of the UK retaining EU membership.

Just today, the CBI issued compelling evidence of how Northern Ireland could prosper by staying in.

It said there is the potential to create 36,800 future jobs in the province. Key sectors like manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade and banking and business, which already depend heavily on the Single Market, would be strengthened by continued membership of the EU.

The CBI also argued that the proposed cut in corporation tax rates makes most sense to foreign investors if Northern Ireland continues to be a gateway to the EU. Some 78% of foreign investors see this as a key attraction.

It is all well and good arguing that there is a big wide world of trade outside the EU, but why does it make sense to put existing economic prosperity at risk in the hope of finding new markets - markets where we would be up against even greater competition that exists within the EU?

EU membership gives us the economic stability to enable business and commerce to do trade with other regions of the world while still having access to a marketplace we know and do well in.

Leaving the EU would undoubtedly make trade with our nearest neighbour, the Republic of Ireland, more difficult without any attendant benefit.

Is the EU perfect? No. Does it need reform? Yes. David Cameron certainly needs to strengthen his demands, but that can only be done from within. The UK is a senior member of the EU, and its voice carries weight.

A remain vote would show that Northern Ireland regards itself post-conflict as a forward-looking progressive society with a role to play within the wider Europe.

It would also put an end to the debate about the break-up of the UK and reinforce our union within the UK, which has already been largely settled in any case.

Leaving the EU is building hopes of greater prosperity, more stable society and a bigger role in the world on a foundation of sand. The compelling evidence points towards remaining within the EU, and that is how a majority of people in Northern Ireland should view tomorrow's poll.

Belfast Telegraph

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