A Belfast Girl in Brussels: The EU Referendum

Well, it’s here, the eve of the EU referendum. This issue has been on my mind for the past few months and it’s hard not to think of the EU referendum given that it’s everywhere! You turn on the telly it’s there, or go on to have your daily dose of social media – yup, it’s there. There really has been no escaping it! Most people are probably sick of hearing about it by now and can’t wait for tomorrow to get it over and done with; however, for me this referendum draws up many questions that go further than just a mere vote on a piece of paper, especially coming from a Northern Ireland perspective.

Having lived in Belgium and spent most of my time working in Brussels, I’ve had the opportunity to gain an insight into the workings of the European Union and its institutions. Before coming here in 2012, I had very little to no knowledge of what the EU actually was (even though I did ‘A’ Level politics!), and I believe that a lot of people probably feel the same way. This lack of transparency and awareness is at fault on many levels, one being our own education system. Civil Citizenship Studies, which looks into the aspects of European citizenship and the EU, didn’t come into the curriculum in my local school until I reached the age of 17 and it was only being rolled out to the younger year groups. It’s great that the younger generations have had the opportunity to learn about this; however, the main sticking point here, particularly in Northern Ireland, is that the general electorate tend to be made up of those aged 25+ and young people tend to be apathetic to politics. As a 25-year-old myself and having missed out on ‘Civil Citizenship Studies’, this paints a somewhat bleak picture of the populations general knowledge of the EU. Add into the mixture the ‘green and orange’ tribal politics of Northern Ireland, the picture becomes bleaker.

The DUP are the largest political party within the Northern Irish Assembly and are also the only Northern Irish party that are with the ‘Leave’ campaign (with the exception of some smaller parties). Sinn Féin, SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionists, and so forth, are all in favour of remaining within the EU. The polls for Northern Ireland indicate that a large portion of the Protestant community are in favour of a Brexit, whilst Catholics remain steadfast with the ‘Remain’ campaign. On an issue as big as this referendum, it is hard to believe that the old notion of ‘British sovereignty’ and a dislike for Eastern European ‘immigrants’ would make someone vote to leave the EU on the basis of ideological lies that have been spun to them, that the promise of a ‘Britain for its true citizens’ and ‘taking back control’ would make someone put their economy, political system, civil rights, social development, environment, social protection, security, all in jeopardy.

So what has the EU exactly done for Northern Ireland you might ask…?

Well many of the foundations of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement rely on EU legislative infrastructures, for example, the fact that both the UK and the Republic of Ireland are members of the EU means that both countries are able to facilitate cross-border North-South institutions that work in the areas of agriculture, education, the environment, tourism, transport, etc. If a Brexit were to happen, it would be very difficult to sustain such bodies without restarting a whole new lengthy and costly process. Even more daunting is the thought of the constitutional crisis Brexit would cause as the legislative basis for the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and EU law. For example, Section 24 of the Northern Ireland Act prohibits any legislation contrary to EU or ECHR law. This means that if the devolved governments were to function properly, the legislative basis on which they operate on, would seriously need to be amended, which again would be lengthy and costly.

In addition, the concept of ‘freedom of movement’ also allows for people, goods, services and capital to travel without any restrictions between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This is not only great for weekend trips down to Dublin, but is also great for our economy. Ireland as an island is not that big, reinstalling a border control along the six counties would have a serious knock-on effect not just economically but also socially! A lot of people will remember the not-so-great times of the border-checks back in the height of the Troubles, Brexit would mean that they would have to be reinstated and this would definitely put off any potential tourist wanting to visit the Giants Causeway from Dublin! The freedom of movement of people does put a lot of people off the idea of the EU as they don’t like the idea of ‘foreigners’ coming in and taking their jobs (the same people who’ve been claiming the dole since they left school at 16). Well I think it’s time to dispel a few myths here. It is estimated that 2.1 million EU workers now live within the UK, yes this number may seem a little scary, but job growth in the UK as a whole has been on the rise, and EU workers have contributed £2.54bn in income taxes and national insurance, which drastically outweighs what they get in child benefits and tax credits in 2013-2014.

Furthermore, the spinning of lies from the ‘Leave’ campaign continues when they suggest that the UK could have a relationship with the EU just like countries such as Norway. Now let’s just clarify a few things here, if you’re voting leave on the basis of immigration, you might be in for a shock to find out that in order for Norway to get a free-trade deal with the EU, it had it sign up to something called the ‘Four Freedoms’: the freedom of movement of people, goods, services and capital. Even in the case of Northern Ireland, a common travel area between the Republic of Ireland and the UK would still entail the freedom of movement of people. As the Republic of Ireland would remain an EU member, it means that EU migrants from other member states can still venture into Ireland and thus make their way to Northern Ireland because legally they can! Those who want to control migration or just hate the local Eastern Europeans are not going to win on this one….FACT! Immigration is healthy for society, it brings multiculturalism, expands your world-views, enhances tolerance and respect for one another.

You might also say that we put too much money into the EU and it could be spent better elsewhere. The UK made a gross contribution of £12.9bn in 2015 and as Northern Ireland has about 3% of the UK’s population, we can estimate that Northern Ireland’s contribution to be about £374 million. Ok so the EU isn’t perfect, I for one agree that it needs to be reformed, but as a native of Belfast, Northern Ireland I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say that I see the difference EU funding has done not just for Belfast but for Northern Ireland as a whole. Every time I go home it’s like there is something new, whether it be a project, development, cultural event, etc. It makes my heart swell seeing our wee bit of the world blooming so beautifully from it’s dark past. What a lot of people don’t realise is that Belfast’s regeneration was largely down to EU funding, as was the Tourist Centre for the Giants Causeway, the Peace Bridge in Derry was partially funded by the EU, even the small local projects and the cross-community work all access EU Funding. The EU is set to spend 118 million Euros on the Peace Programme for Northern Ireland up to 2020 and through its dedication to making Northern Ireland work it has allocated a further £190 million to support the peace and reconciliation process. This kind of funding could never be matched elsewhere.

Now as a very rural island as a whole, our fisheries and farmers also receive large subsidies from the EU, as the 87% of Northern Irish farmer’s income are made up of these subsidies, which also helps to keep the cost of food down as a whole. Our Science and Medical Research industries have also benefited from EU funding making us one of the leading players in this field. The funding and grants we receive in total means that we get more out of the EU than we personally pay in. Even if you think that you personally don’t benefit from the EU, you should know that half of the legislation regarding workers rights and benefits come from EU law. Furthermore, we live in a beautiful part of the world and EU environmental laws help protect our nature and wildlife, sure it wasn’t that long ago 10 Northern Irish beaches received the sought after ‘Blue Flag’ status! As if we needed anymore attractions for the tourists! Health and Education also benefit from the EU. When I was a student, I participated in the Erasmus Exchange Programme which allowed to me study for a semester abroad in an EU country with grants and bursaries to help support me on my adventure. The European Health Insurance Card also allows for EU citizens to access public healthcare facilities when abroad in the EU at the same rate as nationals would pay for, and in a lot of cases, it is very little to none. Your protection and security is also increased with the EU as bodies such as EUROPOL enable for police cooperation. Laws such as child protection, animal welfare, disability rights, LGBT rights, and so forth, come from the European Commission and are then passed by the European Parliament. A parliament made up elected officials representing the 28 member states, and Northern Ireland currently has 3 Members of the European Parliament.

I could go on all day about the perks of being a member of the EU but I’m going to end on a personal note. Brussels, the heart of the EU has been my home for 5 years now. I’ve grown to love it despite all its flaws. My other half is a Flemish Belgian. Our circle of friends are from various parts of Europe and beyond. Northern Ireland sometimes feels very far away when engrossed in this European hub, but it is never far from my thoughts and my heart. I want to see Northern Ireland continue to flourish, I want to continue to meet those people who say they’ve visited Northern Ireland and loved it. What makes us stand out amongst other Europeans is our warmth, hospitality and laughter. I believe we would lose a bit of this if we left the EU.

Please vote ‘Remain’ tomorrow.

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