Irish presidency will do all it can to avoid a ‘Brexit’

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Ireland vowed to be honest broker and do whatever it can to avoid a British exit from EU membership, which is now at the top of the EU political agenda after Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain must use the upheaval created by the eurozone crisis to forge a new relationship with the European Union.

“We have a very strong interest in Britain not just remaining, but being at the heart of the European Union,” Irish Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore told a news conference in Dublin on Tuesday (8 January), a week after Ireland has assumed the presidency of the EU.

David Cameron’s intention to rewrite the EU rule book to reflect Britain’s domestic interests will not be accepted and it would ultimately lead to the break-up of the 27-countries bloc, Gilmore said.

“The European Union is not an à la carte project,” he added, stressing that the terms of membership have to be the same for all member states.

Lucinda Creighton, Ireland’s Europe minister, said if there is a country that can help bridge the gap between the EU and the UK, it is Ireland.

“Ireland with the presidency is in a good position to act as an honest broker and to act as a friend to the UK,” said Creighton, adding that it is in Ireland’s interest to ensure that UK continues a constructive membership in the European Union.

Shift away from the continent

With the onset of the eurozone crisis and the need for further economic and political integration, Cameron’s Conservatives have increasingly sought to loosen Britain’s ties and asked to renegotiate the Union’s treaties. Some favour an outright British exit from the EU with a turn towards strengthening economic ties with Commonwealth countries and the United States.

Britain has negotiated a number of opt-outs from key EU policy areas since its accession in 1973. The country is not part of the eurozone and has not signed the free-border Schengen Treaty and does not want to abide by a number of EU police and judicial cooperation rules.

That has prompted Brussels to rebuff London on a few occasions. In an end-of-the-year address, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said that the UK’s quest to claw back powers from Brussels could inflict immense damage on the single market.

"If every member state were able to cherry pick those parts of existing policies that they most like, and opt out of those that they least like, the union in general, and the single market in particular, would soon unravel," Van Rompuy told the daily Guardian.

Cameron is to deliver a landmark speech in mid-January to mark the 40th anniversary of Britain's EU membership. He might then offer a hint on whether he will call for a referendum on staying or leaving.

According to a YouGov poll earlier this year, 67% of Britons said they favoured "holding a referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe within the next few years".

Irish role

Although the Irish presidency will not take a stance on the referendum, Creighton stressed there is a lot of work that can be done in the interim to build trust and deepen the engagement between the UK and the EU.

“I think this the role for the Irish presidency to enable this debate,” Creighton said.

And Ireland has experience when it comes to holding referendums on European matters, as all EU treaties where sovereignty issues arise must be put to a referendum. This has given rise to multiple referendums, most recently the one on the Fiscal Stability Treaty, which was backed by voters last June.

Positions: 

Ten British business leaders - including Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and Chris Gibson-Smith, chairman of the London Stock Exchange - warned Prime Minister David Cameron that he risks hurting Britain's businesses if he proposes a wholesale renegotiation of Britain's EU membership.

"To call for such a move in these circumstances would be to put our membership of the EU at risk and create damaging uncertainty for British business, which are the last things the prime minister would want to do. We need a strong reformed EU with Britain at the heart of it," said the letter, published in today's Financial Times.

Timeline: 
  • Mid-January: UK Prime Minister David Cameron to deliver 40th anniversary speech
  • 2015: UK general elections
External links: 
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