The European Parliament views the experience of Northern Ireland as an example of the success of the EU’s cohesion policy. As Brexit draws nearer, MEPs are demanding that the EU keep funding projects in the region to preserve peace.
Over the years, Northern Ireland has benefited greatly from EU regional development assistance. However, the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the bloc in March next year might change that.
In a report after a recent fact-finding mission to the region, MEPs concluded that Cohesion Policy “has had a resoundingly positive effect,” particularly in deprived urban and rural areas, and has helped “to improve the economic and social situation of Northern Ireland following the implementation of the peace process.”
The report, backed by a large majority in the Parliament’s plenary on Tuesday (11 September), calls on the Commission to keep funds streaming to the region.
Money for peace
The Parliament believes EU cohesion policy has been an important factor for maintaining the peace in Northern Ireland and warned of the need to continue financing cross-border and peace projects in the country even after Brexit, to avoid fuelling a new conflict.
The PEACE Programme, the report underlines, has helped to create links between communities. “These links would have been difficult to achieve in the absence of the EU-sponsored Peace Programme,” the text highlights.
“The report does not say ‘no EU funds is a return to troubles’. What the report says is that EU funds have made a valuable contribution to reduce that tension,” Derek Vaughan, the Welsh centre-left MEP who is Parliament’s rapporteur on the issue, said during a debate on Monday (10 September).
EU funds, he pointed out, are seen as neutral by both communities and are therefore approved by them. “This means all communities have accepted EU funding and have put funding to good use,” Vaughan underlined.
Cohesion Policy in Northern Ireland should remain in place “whatever happens” after 2020, the rapporteur stressed.
Regional Policy Commissioner, Corina Crețu, agreed Northern Ireland was “a vivid and concrete expression of what cohesion policy can help us achieve.” Therefore, the Commissioner “took note” of the Parliament’s call to keep the flow of EU funds in the area.
Crețu recalled that the EU executive has already included a provision for a new PEACE + fund in its proposal for the next seven year EU budget, after 2020. “We are on the same wavelength,” she said.
Croatian MEP Ivan Jakovčić argued that this kind of fund to support peace should “not only be preserved but expanded to other countries that have also experienced conflicts,” such as Croatia, Kosovo, Bosnia Herzegovina or even the Basque Country, as Spanish MEP Izaskun Bilbao highlighted.
In the current programming period (2014-2021), the EU will allocate more than €1 billion to boost economic and social development in Northern Ireland and the neighbouring regions, of which 230 million will be invested in the Northern Ireland PEACE Programme.
If there is a Brexit agreement by the end of the year, this money will keep flowing from Brussels to the region. In case of a no deal scenario, this would not be the case.
One of the main friction points in the ongoing discussions between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the UK’s Secretary of State Dominic Raab is how to deal with the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and preserve the Good Friday Agreement.
“Sadly there are some Brexiters who want to pick and choose what piece of democracy they respect and they dismiss the importance of this agreement after Brexit,” British Labour MEP John Howarth said.
“To dismiss the agreement is to take peace for granted and when you take peace for granted, you are on a very slippery slope,” Howarth stressed.
Although Northern Ireland and the UK will no longer take part in the decision-making process, which Unionist MEP James Nicholson recalled with concern, MEPs insisted on the need to find the necessary financial instruments, if cohesion policy can no longer be used, to fill the gap Brexit will leave in the region.
The international cross-border dimension of the Interreg programme might be an interesting tool in this sense, Commissioner Crețu said.
“Peace is very hard to build and very easy to destroy,” a lesson, which Europeans have learnt “again and again” over the years, Green German MEP Terry Reintke underlined. “We cannot let this Brexit disaster mess up the peace in Northern Ireland,” Reintke said.