Deputy Thomas P. Broughan: I thank the Chair for giving me the opportunity to briefly discuss the Brexit issue. A Brexit would not be in our national interest and there are so many areas where it would make our economic and political future much more difficult than it might be otherwise. However, the debate in the UK is valuable and the British people must be commended on their courage in considering all aspects of the European Union at this time. If they decide to vote for a Brexit, it would bring fundamental change, but it is valuable at least to have the general debate on how Europe operates and particularly the accountability and transparency of European institutions.
People sometimes believe history has an inevitability but there is nothing inevitable about it. I met former Commissioner Richard Burke of Fine Gael, who was in office when Greenland, which is still attached to the Danish crown, decided to leave the then European Economic Community, EEC. There was much sadness about this as a result of the opportunities for development in Denmark, Greenland and the rest of Europe that were lost. During Iceland’s terrible recent financial crisis, it was being said very confidently in Brussels that the country would apply to join the European Union. Of course, Iceland has more or less decided it is not coming in and will remain on road similar to that taken by Norway. Nothing is inevitable. On the other side of the Eurasian land mass, although countries share culture and history, nobody would think that Japan or Korea would join China. There are a number of areas which make up a large chunk of the Chinese communist state – I refer, in particular, to Tibet and the lands occupied by the Uyghur people – which do not want any kind of membership of that state. There is nothing inevitable about it.
The party I belonged to for most of my political career opposed entry into the European Union in 1973. One of the issues at the time related to our fisheries. There is no question that our ocean waters – our fifth province – were sold down the river in the deal made in 1972. Our agriculture was protected and enhanced but our fisheries did very badly. Looking back over the years since we joined, particularly the years of social Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, we had many valuable developments and this country was assisted by Europe in bringing our legislation to modern standards and supporting modern social programmes. Since the early 1990s, many people have had second thoughts about aspects of Europe, particularly the development of the “financialisation” of banking and the development of a cutthroat capitalist regime in several members of the European Union. That has given people pause for thought, with individuals feeling that perhaps we should step back and look at how Europe has developed and how it will continue to develop.
During our boom, our annual contributions to Europe more or less evened out. The Minister probably knows the exact detail but we are in the process of becoming a net contributor. We are in the same league as Britain and other countries. In the past four or five years, people have felt very upset that the savage austerity inflicted on this country effectively came from decisions of the European institutions. There was a failure to establish a proper central bank at the instigation of the euro, along with the necessary central banking institutions. There was also the infliction of the burden of debt on our shoulders in order to protect, in particular, German banks. More recently, people have been concerned about the handling of the migration crisis and the way in which Germany unilaterally abandoned the Dublin Convention. It was seemingly prepared to put its political ideals in front of the ideals of the 28 nations; essentially, it was not prepared to work for a European-wide and urgently required solution for people fleeing terror and war in countries like Syria.
It is, therefore, understandable that there has been a rise in euroscepticism. We saw recently in the Netherlands that the Dutch people voted against the EU partnership deal to remove trade barriers with Ukraine. Some 61% of the electorate voted against it and there was a major Internet petition by eurosceptics in the Netherlands that gained approximately 400,000 signatures. It is clear that – leaving aside the Brexit referendum – there are alarm bells ringing with regard to the necessity for European institutions to have much more accountability and visibility in each of the 28 countries.
A final point on that side of the argument is that there have been so many “No” votes in our own country, as well as in France, the Netherlands and other states, in respect of European developments. Nevertheless, those votes have always been effectively overturned because people keep voting. That may well be the case for those of us in this House because the people could be asked to vote again in the coming weeks in order that we might get another result.
It is very striking how people have been asked for their opinion and it has not been respected. I accept that a Brexit would have a significant and detrimental impact on our economy and we cannot underestimate the potential impact on Northern Ireland. While our exports and imports with the UK are vastly different in percentage terms than in the early 1970s, the UK remains a fundamentally important market. Over 90% of our imported energy products came from the UK in 2014. It is very difficult to imagine the UK outside the EU. There are very close bonds that bind us to our countrymen in the North, to the Welsh, the Scots and the English people: maybe 20% or 25% of English people are of pretty direct Irish descent – one only has to look at the surnames – to contemplate them in a different political space than us.
The debate is useful. We are watching programmes like “Newsnight” and other BBC debates across the topic. The UK’s apparent achievement in abandoning the principle of ever closer union is probably an important milestone. The diversity of this Continent with all its cultures and languages, along with the common culture of Christianity and our general history from the Roman Empire and before that means that we must have a varied approach to future development. There needs to be much more visibility and accountability from European institutions. For example, the relationship between our MEPs and this House remains unsatisfactory. It is unacceptable that ordinary people, and even political activists, do not know the names of several of Ireland’s MEPs a few months after the election. Obviously MEPs should also have to work on that relationship, but they can become very remote very easily.
Negotiations around the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP, are reportedly being accelerated yet there has not really been an opportunity for a proper national discussion in the House on TTIP and other significant agreements. I hope that the UK electorate chooses to remain in the EU but that the conversation started by the English Government will continue at a European level to look at the reforms necessary to bring Europe much closer to us and to accept the diversity. The greatness of European civilisation has always been its diversity. Our nation has contributed so much to human history, the arts, literature, politics, economics etc. as other member states have contributed and as will other countries that will join in the future. However, we need to have a Europe that will be relaxed and broad enough to take a different way, maybe a confederate path rather than a federalist path, into the future.