(The following is the presentation made by Dr Anthony Soares to the Fianna Fail conference on ‘Britain and EU membership referendum – Cross-border Implications’ 16 July 2015)
“I would like to begin by thanking Deputy Brendan Smith for inviting me to take part in this panel and in this vitally important discussion for the prosperity of both parts of the island of Ireland, these islands, and for Europe. My objective here is to outline some of the general consequences of a possible Brexit on cooperation on the island of Ireland.
Currently, at the core of our formal structures for North-South cooperation is the North South Ministerial Council. One of the Council’s central functions, as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, is “to consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework”.
Since its creation in 1999, the Centre for Cross Border Studies has been wholly devoted to cross-border and all-island cooperation, contributing to the increased social, economic and territorial cohesion of the island of Ireland. We do this through three main areas of activity: addressing information gaps and other barriers that constrain cross-border mobility and cooperation; promoting and improving the quality of cross-border cooperation; and improving people’s capacity to engage in cross-border cooperation.
All of our work takes place under a policy framework made up of two central pillars: (1) the first, particular to the context of the island of Ireland, is the commitment to cross-border and all-island cooperation enshrined in Strand II of the Good Friday Agreement. (2) The second pillar is the EU’s Cohesion Policy, which aims at strengthening economic, social and territorial cohesion by reducing disparities between the levels of development of regions and countries of the European Union.
These twin pillars that directly inform our own approach to cross-border cooperation and provide the general context for cooperation on this island for most actors are in turn largely supported (including financially) or informed by the European Union. The majority of cross-border projects are funded by the EU’s European Territorial Cooperation programmes, which on this island includes not only INTERREG but also the PEACE programme.
The implementation of European Territorial Cooperation programmes such as PEACE and INTERREG on the island of Ireland have, perhaps, enabled a different geographical imaginary that – like these programmes’ eligible areas – doesn’t limit itself to jurisdictional boundaries and allows for collaborative actions with the possibility of a cohesive result. The EU has provided governments, institutions and organisations on both sides of the border with a territorial vision that offers a wider space for cooperation. However, it could be argued that we have not always exploited to the full the potential for cross-border cooperation offered by the EU.
Turning to the possibility of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, to say nothing of the ramifications for the Good Friday Agreement, a Brexit would immediately remove one of the central pillars around which cross-border and all-island cooperation operates on the island of Ireland. Without EU Cohesion policy and its aim of reducing regional disparities, that goal would be entirely reliant on political support and funding from Dublin and, more particularly, Belfast and London.
This is not to say that the changing status of our border which, with a Brexit, would become an external EU border, and that without the overarching policy currently provided by the EU this would necessarily spell the end of cross-border cooperation. However, the likelihood would be that we would revert to a situation in which such cooperation would become piecemeal in nature, and dependent on the will of individual organisations to engage in such cooperation. In such a context, more ambitious and strategic forms of cooperation, such as the creation of a Border Development Corridor, would be much more challenging (if not impossible) to realise.
Of course, there are other European nations that are not members of the EU, but who still engage in cross-border cooperation with their EU neighbours. Norway, which is a member of the European Economic Area, the Schengen Area, and of EFTA is one such example. However, leaving aside for now the fact that the UK is not in Schengen or EFTA, the complex structures and the complications that Norway has to face when looking to cooperate with EU neighbours should be noted if we are to consider a post-Brexit context for cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland. A 2013 report to the Norwegian Parliament underlines the challenges Norway faces as it has to transpose into domestic law EU legislation in which it has very little input if it wants to cooperate with its EU neighbours. What would be the challenges faced by a devolved administration in Northern Ireland if it wished to pursue cross-border or all-island cooperation with Ireland? How willing would the UK government be to facilitate such cooperation if it were to be asked to shape domestic law in line with EU legislation?
Switzerland is another case in point. It is also a member of Schengen and EFTA, although it is not a member of the EEA. In order to cooperate with the EU Switzerland has signed a significant number of agreements, which have to be frequently revisited in order to accompany the evolution of EU law. However, this has not prevented it from engaging in cross-border cooperation with its EU neighbours although, again, that cooperation is complicated by the need to keep within both domestic and EU legislation. Moreover, when a neighbouring country may want to pursue the development of a cross-border project that is in line with EU Cohesion policy and would address its own needs, this will not be possible if it doesn’t fit in with Swiss priorities or when the authorities there are not willing to provide the necessary matching funding.
We now have an unmissable opportunity in the run-up to the UK referendum on EU membership to renew and revitalise our commitment to cross-border cooperation and to the important policy context provided for it by membership of the European Union and Strand II of the Good Friday Agreement. Such a commitment should allow us to more fully exploit not only the funding made available by the EU for cross-border cooperation, but also the various instruments it puts at our disposal. It should also reconfirm our belief in the structures set up by the Good Friday Agreement, but in a way that doesn’t allow them to become political blockages to the energy and aspirations that exist for cross-border cooperation beyond those formal structures. They need to become more active enablers rather than controllers of cross-border and all-island cooperation. By doing this and winning the argument for the UK’s continued membership of the EU, we will be able to fulfil our ambitions in relation to the socio-economic development of the island of Ireland.”