Britain, the former sick man of Europe, has seen its economy grow strongly in the EU. It is making a major mistake by leaving the bloc and the customs union and does not even realise what serious challenges it will face in the future, says former Irish minister Dara Murphy.
Dara Murphy is the former Irish minister for EU affairs and currently Campaign Director for the European People’s Party. He spoke to Euractiv.cz’s Aneta Zachová.
How has the EU changed after the Brexit referendum?
For the first time, we see that one member state leaves. For the first time we are entering the process of divergence, previously it was only convergence. It’s regrettable but the EU, the remaining 27 member states, have to accept this democratic decision taken by the people of the United Kingdom.
What we can see now is a very strong unity between the European institutions and 27 member states. This unity in how we deal with such a challenge that one state is leaving has proven that 27 member states can work together to find solutions that are all in our interest. Everybody wants to have good relationships with their neighbours and we also need to protect what we have achieved over the last years.
I also think there is a focus across the continent on how we improve the EU… The EU has certainly its mistakes but those are collective mistakes made by current 27 member states working together. We have to recognise that some of the mistakes in the past can be addressed in the future if we work together. It is a great error what we saw in the Brexit referendum, where many people in the UK referred to the EU in the third person. In reality, when there are decisions of the European Parliament, Council or whether the laws are enforced by the European Commission, those decisions are made by Czechs, Germans, French, Irish etc. In this matter, we need to see greater political responsibility.
Brexit shows us that it is possible to leave the EU. Could it motivate other countries to follow the British example? Or to ‘blackmail’ the EU by threatening to leave if something is approved by the institutions that is not in their interest?
Blackmail doesn’t work in any context. But we have to look at the simple reality that the decision taken by British is a major mistake – this is what I, the government of Ireland and my political family, the EPP, think. It will deeply affect UK’s economy and therefore it will affect the people of the UK.
When the UK joined the European institutions in 1973, it was referred to as the sick man of Europe, its economy was performing very, very poorly. We joined the EU at the same time and the Irish economy was also very poor, we had a very backward society. Now both Ireland and the UK are strong, vibrant, open, modern economies.
We have seen the same history here since 2004, when the Czech Republic and other countries joined the EU and the freedoms of movement and trade and other benefits opened to millions of people. The UK, which has seen such strong economic progress during its history in the Union is now exposing itself to serious challenges. The UK should leave the EU in 2019 but it will take time to see the difficulties that the UK will face. And it’s also important to say that we don’t wish to the UK any difficulty, but the simple reality is that you cannot have the benefits of the club if you are not a member of that club.
How is Brexit perceived by Irish people?
According to the opinion polls, approximately 90 – 92% of Irish people support EU membership. For Irish people, it is absolutely no question. As a medium-size state, we absolutely see the benefits. We strongly feel we have established independent nations through being part of the greatest democratic project that the world has ever seen.
Secondly, we are directly affected. We have €1.2 billion worth of trade with the UK every week. By the way, when the UK talks about its trading relationship globally – that they can forge new trading relationships around the world – the UK currently has more trade with Ireland than it has with Brazil, Russia, India and China combined. So, the British course has severe consequences for Ireland but still, we won’t be affected as badly as the UK.
The greater concern for Irish people is peace – we have a peace agreement between the UK and Ireland that is taking place under the stewardship of the EU. It was negotiated through the 1980s and 90s when both countries were members. Now there is no territorial dispute.
Still, we have to be very careful – the return of border checks on Irish-UK borders could symbolise the past and destabilise what was negotiated and what brought the end of the war. We already have the agreement that free movement of people must be protected and that there should be no hard border.
We already have a common travel area and we also have to consider that we are islands – the only land border that the UK has is on the island of Ireland. We have also 1.6 million people living in Northern Ireland and largest group of non-British people living in the UK is from Ireland. We will be the most affected by Brexit and we also didn’t want it to happen. We engaged in the campaign but unfortunately, the decision has been taken and we must deal with it.
The Irish border issue is now negotiated between the EU and the UK. Is there any plan on the table on how to solve this issue?
We welcome that the British are committed to preserving the common travel area and we agree that there should be no hard border. But still there is a vacuum in specific details and we are waiting for more detail proposals from the UK on how they can reconcile their desire to forge new trade agreements globally and to leave the customs union and reconcile a common trade area in Ireland. Those things are incompatible so we have to wait for their concrete proposal.
My personal conviction is that the British should discontinue their objective to leave the customs union. But unfortunately, it is currently not the position. In fact, by not being members of Schengen, not being a member of the single market, customs union, eurozone, they will have quite a remote relationship with the EU. Still, it is important to stress that it is the UK that decided to leave the EU and leave the single market behind, to not have the euro and also to leave the customs union.
With this decision come difficulties to the people of the UK that are being brought upon by themselves. And that is something that is not properly communicated to the British people in much of the narrative that we hear from politicians, sadly including governments figures and media and of course hard Brexiteers who mislead the people.
Next year we will have not only Brexit but also the European elections. Does the European Parliament have any strategy for how to avoid a rise of Eurosceptic parties?
That’s why I’m here on my visit to the Czech Republic, to meet both our parties – TOP09 and KDU-ČSL (Czech parties in the EPP) – to start preparing a campaign in which we will be explaining to the people of the Czech Republic why we seek to maintain the EU, what had we achieved since the foundation of the EU and also what has taken place under this Commission – that all 27 member states are showing economic growth.
We want to say that work of the MEPs from both our parties (TOP 09 and KDU-ČSL) for the people of the Czech Republic has been delivered and will continue to be delivered.
We want the debate to take place. We want political families to defend what they’ve achieved and to clearly mark what they want to do in the future. Equally, we understand the importance of diversity and subsidiarity that the countries want to keep some competences for themselves. It is also very much supported by the EU.