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EU Referendum: We can only fight Northern Ireland's corner in Europe by staying at the table


Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist MEP for Northern Ireland

Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist MEP for Northern Ireland

Jim Nicholson, Ulster Unionist MEP for Northern Ireland

Later this week, as a nation, we will be making one of the biggest political decisions in a generation as we vote on our relationship with the European Union. Essentially, in my view, the question comes down to which option - Remain or Leave - best safeguards jobs and investment in Northern Ireland and maintains the unity of the United Kingdom.

Over the past 27 years, I have seen great change in Europe. For example, we have moved from 12 to 28 member states. I have also seen Northern Ireland's relationship with Europe evolve and mature.

I will always remember when, in October 1994, just as the loyalist ceasefire was announced, Ian Paisley, John Hume and I met with then European Commission president Jacques Delors. He shared our optimism that Northern Ireland would move to a new beginning away from violence and pledged EU financial support.

And he was true to his word - weeks later, £240m of European funding for peace-building in Northern Ireland was approved. By 2020, Northern Ireland and the border region of the Republic will have received more than €2bn in PEACE funding alone.

Of course, PEACE funding only makes up one part of the money we draw down from Europe. Our local agri-food industry benefits immensely from EU support - in terms of agricultural funds, Northern Ireland currently receives four times as much per capita as England. Would that continue to be the case if we voted to leave?

It's not just farmers and community groups who have benefited from EU funding - EU funds have contributed to many of our major infrastructure investments, from new roads to our rail network and many other projects across Northern Ireland.

Overall, we are huge net recipients of EU funding - even Leave campaigners in Northern Ireland had to admit that, in 2014 alone, we were a net beneficiary by some £60m.

Northern Ireland is uniquely placed within the United Kingdom. We are the only part of the UK to share a land border with another EU country. As a result, Brexit would have a specific effect on our economy and local jobs.

For example, the EU is the UK's biggest trading partner, and almost half of UK trade is with the EU. According to a report published by the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee at Westminster just weeks ago, Northern Ireland is the UK region most reliant on EU trade.

One study has suggested that more than 111,000 jobs in Northern Ireland are linked to EU trade.

When Leave campaigners shrug their shoulders at the idea of even a short-term recession post-Brexit, it is these jobs they are putting at risk.

HM Treasury predicts that 14,000 jobs in Northern Ireland could be under threat simply from the short-term shock of a Brexit alone.

Being part of the EU's Single Market means unfettered, tariff-free access to a bloc of 27 other nations and a market of 500 million customers.

If we vote to leave the EU, even the best deal that currently exists wouldn't give us that. For example, no non-EU country is more integrated with the Single Market than Norway - but even Norway has to pay high tariffs on agri-food exports into Europe.

It is, therefore, little wonder that the vast majority of our local business community opposes leaving Europe.

It is not just on the economy that our geographical position within the UK is significant. The question of border controls has been a serious issue for those living along the border, commuters and those involved in business.

In particular, small and medium-sized enterprises in the border areas have already had to deal with volatile currency fluctuations in recent times.

These concerns have been brushed off carelessly by Leave campaigners, but the reality is clear: there has to be a "hard" border between the UK and the EU. If that hard border isn't on the island of Ireland, it will be at ports and airports in Britain, such as Cairnryan and Heathrow.

This is not simply Remain "scaremongering" - even the Eurosceptic Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has conceded that border checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK cannot be ruled out.

As someone who is a firm believer in the United Kingdom, I do not want to live as a second-class citizen in my own country.

As someone who has spent the past 27 years fighting for Northern Ireland in Europe, I see first-hand the many imperfections the EU has. The EU is far from perfect - and I don't think anyone arguing for a Remain vote thinks it is beyond criticism. But the question we have to ask is, what problems would leaving the EU actually solve?

For some, leaving the EU and walking away would be the easy choice. But if we leave the pitch, the other 27 member states will keep playing. But if we then still want to trade freely with the EU we would, like Norway, have to sit on the bench and accept the rules and result without any say in the matter. We need to be rule-makers in Europe, not rule-takers.

At the table, we can continue to lead the charge for EU reform.

In Northern Ireland, we should be doing much more to promote ourselves in Europe and to make the most of our special position. Our devolved ministers can sit alongside UK Government counterparts in Brussels; they should be doing that more often.

The Executive's office in Brussels should be given more ambitious targets and direction from Stormont in terms of European engagement.

Northern Ireland and the EU both look very different than they did in 1994. I am proud that Northern Ireland is now a region that can showcase itself to the EU and beyond as a place to travel to, to do business with and to invest in.

I want a prosperous Northern Ireland as part of a secure United Kingdom. On balance, the best way to take that ambition forward is for the United Kingdom to lead in a reformed European Union.

Jim Nicholson is Ulster Unionist MEP for Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph