Belfast Telegraph

Brexit: Quitting is not answer as we can reform union from within

Stay or go? Three top business commentators give their arguments both for and against (with one undecided) on whether Brexit is best for the United Kingdom

By John Simpson (anti-Brexit)

The Brexit debate has started. With nearly 120 days to go before votes will be cast, by June 23, boredom will have overtaken excitement at this once-in-a-lifetime decision. The early days of public debate have been dominated by opinions and prejudice, rather more than rational analysis.

There are several strands to the debate: what is the best answer for people in Northern Ireland? What is the best answer for the whole of the UK, including Scotland? What is the best answer in terms of being a good European neighbour? Forgive my anticipation, but in my opinion the answer is to stay in the EU and reform from within.

Frequently, the 'leave' argument is couched in terms of:

  •  Taking back control - sovereignty
  •  Making our own decisions, law making discretion
  •  Greater policy freedom on migration and trade
  •  Spending our own money in ways that we choose
  •  Each of these arguments are quoted in favour of Brexit, but can be countered.

These issues must be assessed to ensure that the outcome of a changed situation allows for the best evolution of quality of life for the people who live here (us) in a way in which we share progress with our neighbours and people in less developed parts of the world. Brexit should not be judged on selfish criteria, with an 'ourselves alone' philosophy.

In the paragraphs which follow, in an abbreviated use of language to meet editorial constraints, an alternative set of conclusions is signposted.

Some of the conclusions draw on 12 years of direct experience of working in one of the EU institutions, the European Economic and Social Committee, as well as a much longer experience of attempting to follow some EU developments in other work for about 50 years.

Three starting points are critical. First, usually by common consent, the EU is already working effectively for an improving single market, with harmonisation of trade, trading standards, and the necessary shared decision making on fiscal and State Aid limits.

Admittedly, there is excessive 'red-tape' which is now recognised and still needs to be managed downwards.

Second, many of the other Member States share the UK's ambition to ensure that national authorities continue to represent their sovereign states: the EU (despite the name) is not a union or super-state. In terms of UK interests, the very least that should be acknowledged is that Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland and increasingly Germany form a natural alliance for constructive changes. Many share the ambition for change from within expressed by the UK. These allies deserve consistent support from the UK.

Third, despite the original trend for the old EEC to rely on French as a nearly common language, increasingly English has emerged as the daily lingua. Also, English culture has been gaining traction.

Critically, the EU has been moving to correct the democratic deficit. If the UK stays 'IN' the objectives of the UK Government to correct this deficit are not meeting widely based hostility.

Reaching conclusions

The arguments assessing economic benefits point heavily against Brexit. For Northern Ireland this can be exemplified in terms of trade potential for goods, services and foreign investment. A UK Brexit is a major threat to FDI, particularly compared to our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. A 12.5% corporation tax outside the EU is seriously eroded compared to the position of the RoI.

The arguments about risk to distortions to development are clear for farming and food processing. However CAP evolves and a UK replacement emerges, cross-border pricing and fiscal differences are more likely.

The case for retaking local sovereignty on law making has some validity. There is much to be said for common rules, or shared sovereignty, between co-operating neighbouring states on issues such as social aspects of labour legislation, common technical standards for traded items, methods of avoiding unfair competition and regulating market abuse. The EU has successfully worked in this direction. Any imbalances should be resolved on an agreed, shared EU basis.

Law making discretion is not a one-way street. If EU rules or directives are not welcome, then the internal process can be used (with difficulty) to make changes. However, critically, EU rules are not an imposition on an unwilling UK: they are usually an agreed imposition across the EU for collective benefit. The European Court (not to be confused with the separate human rights mechanism) does not merit serious local criticism.

An emotional appeal is that we should get back more of 'our own money' to spend.

This is a UK-wide issue. Northern Ireland, even now, is a beneficiary.

But the essential point is that an EU budget that also helps less prosperous parts of the EU is a natural response to needs and social policy.

Do we need to deny the merits of regional and international aid policies to avoid shared responsibilities?

Northern Ireland is sheltered within the EU from the euro, protected by local Schengen rules, and is out of the social contract. Migration is, with relief, not a big local threat. If more local discretion is needed, let's ask and negotiate.

Voting to leave looks unwise. The balance of argument is for the UK to stay.

Belfast Telegraph