Later this month, on June 23, the British public goes to the polls to vote on Brexit or whether to leave the European Union or remain.
The debate is beginning to hot up in the UK and commentators here have firmly decided that a Brexit – the UK leaving the EU – would be bad for Ireland.
This month’s referendum is thanks to David Cameron promising to hold one if he won the 2015 general election. In 1975, the UK voted with a 67.2% majority to remain within the then EEC. 41 years is a long time and it’s far from certain that the result will be the same this time around.
Debate in the UK has been between a remain side, whose arguments are based on economics and fact, and a leave side, whose arguments have strongly focused on emotive issues such as controlling immigration.
An actual Brexit would be unprecedented as no country that has been so embedded has left. No one seems sure what the actual implications for the UK would even be, in terms of trade agreements, but both sides say recession in the UK for the immediate few years is more than likely.
The implications on Ireland would be unknown to a large extent, as our membership of the EU would take precedence over any relationship with the UK.
If the UK does decide to exit the EU, nothing is likely to happen for the immediate two years, or even longer. When Greenland left the EEC in 1985 (after eight years membership) the divorce took six years to negotiate.
What is known is our heavy reliance on the UK as a trading partner, while the land border with Northern Ireland would have to be addressed. The UK is Ireland’s largest single trading partner. Total Irish merchandise exports in 2014 were valued at €92 billion, of which almost €13.6 billion were exports to the UK. Ireland also imports a significant amount from the UK.
In 2014 Ireland exported €4.5 billion in agri-food products to the UK, primarily in the form of beef, dairy products and processed foods. Ireland’s imports of agri-food products from the UK are also substantial, amounting to €4.1 billion in 2014.
On the other side of the fence, 56% of fresh beef imports into the UK come from Ireland; 56% of butter into the UK comes from Ireland; 28% of cheese into the UK comes from Ireland.
We don’t want to be in a situation, and it’s unknown how much of a special deal Ireland could negotiate with the UK outside the EU, where relations with our largest trading partner are strained. The UK, if it votes to leave, will have to re-establish all trading deals and Ireland, as an EU member, may not be a favoured partner anymore.
While we can’t vote on June 23, we can influence the decision makers. With at least 6m people in the UK estimated to have an Irish grandparent, the connection between the two countries lies deep. But the onus is now on Ireland to help ensure the UK votes to remain within the EU. We should not want our relationship with the UK to end in divorce.