Former EU President addresses chamber Brexit conference

August 1, 2016

Dublin-born politician and former television current affairs presenter, Pat Cox, laid out the future scenarios to businesses in the wake of the Brexit decision, during a breakfast workshop hosted by Newry’s Chamber of Commerce and Trade last Tuesday.

Mr Cox, who was a member of the European Parliament from 1989 to 2004, said that many business are functioning at a time of high uncertainty in the aftermath of the UK decision to leave the EU and that “Uncertainty creates a vacuum easily filled by speculation which in turn reinforces a sense of anxiety.”

“This is accentuated by the inability of the British authorities, for the moment, to clarify what they want by way of a future relationship with the EU 27 and by the determination of the latter to insist on ‘no negotiations without notification’,” Cox told delegates in the Canal Court Hotel.

A key focus of his presentation was to anchor the debate in the knowledge and reassurance that Ireland has exercised her sovereignty to be at the very heart of EU decision-making and will mobilise the goodwill and support of larger players as a matter of right and not of privilege under the rule of law.  “The worst thing we can do is to have a peripheral mentality,” he said.

In this context his discussion and presentation drew very interesting insights on some of the accumulated inheritance of EU law and practice that can be mobilised in Ireland’s interest.

Speaking on the Common Travel Area (CTA), Mr Cox informed delegates that the first legal recognition of the CTA between Ireland and the UK is EU based and contained in the Treaty of Amsterdam which entered into force on 1st May 1999.  He added, “Thus our discussions with the EU 27 are not starting as a blank sheet but as the inheritance of what is already there and must be built on as a matter of right not privileges”.

On the issue of a border poll, Mr Cox laid out the scenario whereby if the UK should exit the EU but at some future date was to decide to vote for a United Ireland, as foreseen as a possibility in the Belfast Agreement, then the reintegration precedent of East Germany with West Germany provides a fast track and a template which should be easily accommodated through Article 23.

“In European terms this was a territorial enlargement without a new accession since the Federal Republic of Germany already was a full member state and so no Treaty amendment of EC primary law was required”.

The former EP president was keen to reiterate that any scenario discussed was not a prediction or a presumption that a border poll is imminent but said that if such conditions ever were to prevail in Northern Ireland “it would be incumbent on the Houses of the Oireachtas in the Republic to enact referendum legislation on Irish unity and for the Republic’s electorate to consent to this by a majority.”

“Given Britain’s level of transfers to Northern Ireland which sustain its current living standard and which amount to around 30 per cent of its income, it is open to question whether the Republic’s citizens currently would be prepared to contemplate the massive transfers that would be needed to fill this void in the event of Northern Ireland voting to quit the UK,” Mr Cox said.

“These considerations make an early border poll highly implausible on both sides of the border, whatever interest may attach to that question in recent weeks.”

Also speaking at the post-brexit planning workshop, Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy warned that the north stands to lose billions if it is dragged out of the EU.

“It is absolutely clear from the various briefings and discussions held over the past few weeks that leaving the EU would be economically, socially and politically disastrous for the north of Ireland,” he said.

Mr Murphy cited the loss of an “unquantifiable amount of private investment” and millions in EU funding as direct implications of a decision to leave the EU as well as “many more implications for the common travel area, for the free movement of people, goods and services which all add up to a disastrous situation. Potentially, we are looking at tens of billions being taken out of our economy over the coming decade.”

However, he added his party was doing everything it could to mitigate the damage of brexit, having recently tabled an amendment to the review of the EU budget up until 2020 calling on the Parliament to continue its support for the peace process through the continued funding of the PEACE programme.  According to the Sinn Féin MLA, the amendment was supported by 541 out of 751 MEPs.

“The Assembly in the North is legally required to operate within EU law.  If Westminster agrees to an EU exit deal under the Sewel Convention, there must be a legislative Consent Motion which would theoretically give the north and Scotland a veto, although the British have indicated they would ignore any such veto,” said Mr Murphy who went on to reveal that Sinn Féin have also signed up to a cross-party, cross-community legal challenge to the north being taken out of Europe.

On the subject of reunification, he described it as the “elephant in the room” and the “only option which can fully protect everyone in the north from the disastrous effects an EU exit would have on this area.”

“We are seeking to create a broad base of political parties, interest groups, businesses, industries and individuals to campaign for a border poll.  Such a campaign may require people to let go of their ideological hang-ups from the last century and while that may not be easy the consequences of not doing so are too damaging to ignore.”