THAT Britain might pull out of the European Union after a promised referendum on the matter within the next two and a half years is a worrying prospect for Ireland, given that it is a bigger trading partner of ours than any of the rest of the countries in the EU. Even our cross-border trading relationship with Northern Ireland would be re-defined by such a move that would not be in our best interests.
David Cameron’s achievement of an overall majority for his Conservative Party in the British general election took most people by surprise and handed him power that even he could hardly have dreamt of, going by all the opinion polls beforehand that were predicting a hung parliament. Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system was instrumental in helping get his overall majority at the expense of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Ukip – with the leaders of the first two falling on their swords in the election aftermath.
Even though politicians are not renowned for keeping their promises, Cameron’s pledge to hold a referendum on membership of the EU, which was dubbed the ‘Brexit’ strategy, helped placate the Euro-sceptics within his own party and would have been a factor in its general election victory and will be honoured, he says, although paradoxically the Prime Minister’s own preference is to stay within the EU. His ploy will be to seek a better deal for Britain within the EU and allay his people’s fears about the allowing too much immigration, but whatever concessions he gets will have to be extended to all the other Member States also and this may be easier said than done.
If Cameron does get sought-after concessions, it may still not be enough because if the electorate decides they want Britain out of the EU, they will count for nothing. Just like Enda Kenny’s pledge to abolish the Seanad came back to ‘wallop’ him with an embarrassing referendum defeat, the same could happen to David Cameron, but the consequences of it would be a lot more far-reaching, going well beyond Britain’s borders.
The Taoiseach will be discussing Britain’s relationship with the EU at a bilateral meeting with the British Prime Minister before the June meeting of the European Council, but this is unlikely to put him off doing what he has to. All Enda Kenny can do is reiterate to him the serious implications Britain leaving the EU would have for Ireland and to reflect the desire of other leaders for Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to set out a road map for negotiations as well as a date for the referendum that is promised for before the end of 2017.
The EU will have to negotiate with Britain, even though they will not be in a mood to give away too many concessions, given the knock-on effect it would have. They know – and Cameron knows too – that Britain is probably better off in the EU as they mutually need one another.
However, that might not stop the ‘Brexit’ happening, as Cameron’s majority in parliament is very slim and he could well be undermined by the anti-EU faction within his own party. The threat of the Scottish National Party holding the balance of power provoked a last-minute rush of English nationalism in this month’s general election and, if a referendum on Britain leaving the EU was held now in the immediate aftermath, some argue that it would probably be carried, although it would still be difficult to envisage.
If David Cameron managed to obtain significant concessions from the EU quickly, he might be tempted to hold the referendum sooner rather than later, especially if he thought it would help keep them in the fold. However, this could be too big a gamble and he might be better advised to hold off for at least two years.