2016 could be a noteworthy year in the European Union (EU). It is now being suggested that voters in the United Kingdom (UK) could go to the polls as early as June of this year in an ‘in-out’ referendum on its membership of the EU. As the Conservative government led by Prime Minister David Cameron had promised to hold the referendum by the end of 2017, most commentators assumed it would take place sometime next year.
This will not be the first time that Britain has held a referendum on its membership of the EU. In 1975 a similar vote was held, and passed resoundingly in favour of staying part of the Union, then known as the European Economic Community. Current opinion polls show 45% support for remaining in the EU, with 39% saying they will vote to leave. Significantly though, 15% of those who have been asked in polls are still undecided.
The upcoming referendum could have a huge impact on the future of the EU. Should Britain vote to leave, the shockwaves would be felt around Europe, but nowhere more than here in Ireland, the only country to share a land border with the UK. The Irish government has expressed strongly its wish that the UK remains in. The trade relationship is very important to the Irish economy and jobs, along with the cost of goods and services could very well be negatively affected by an exit. Ireland could at a disadvantage socially, economically and politically if Britain were to leave the EU. Irish workers and residents in the UK could also be affected by an Out vote. Over 400,000 Irish citizens currently live in the UK. Along with people from Cyprus and Malta, an estimated 230,000 Irish people live in the UK, and those who are registered to do so will be eligible to vote in the referendum. People from other Member States cannot vote.
The Prime Minister Cameron has stated repeatedly that he believes they should remain inside the EU but he wishes to see changes in four key areas, including social welfare benefits, which have become a matter of controversy in parts of Britain. The British government would also like to see national parliaments gain more control over regulations and laws.
The UK government’s ‘wish list’ will be discussed at an EU summit in mid-February, where all of the leaders of the other 27 Member States will discuss and try to reach agreement on these issues.
It is unclear how Britain will fare economically should they leave. Access to the EU, which is the world’s biggest single market, could be limited depending on the outcome of the referendum. This would have knock-on effects for business in the UK and Ireland, and many suggest that the motor industry could be among the worst affected as British manufacturers seek to keep costs low. Many EU laws that are currently in place in the UK, such as those concerning employment, the environment and other trade regulations would be affected and possibly repealed, should the UK government deem it necessary. There are several other unknowns such as whether the border could re-open on this island and what the impact would be on the free movement between Member States which all EU citizens enjoy.
The other interesting dimension is the position of Scotland where there is huge support in every opinion poll to stay in the EU. We could yet see a situation where Scotland will vote to remain, while the rest of the UK chooses to leave. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has stated that should this happen, it is very likely that her government will initiate another ‘Independence’ referendum.
As a British exit from the EU would have a huge impact on Ireland, north and south, European Movement Ireland is holding a series of events around the country where members of the public can come along to discuss these issues further. We will have more details to follow soon on our website.
This blog post is an edited version of our Executive Director Noelle O Connell’s monthly column in the Cork Evening Echo.