Irish Labour want to see the UK remain in and fully engaged in the EU

24 September 2019

Prepared remarks by Labour Party Leader Brendan Howlin TD for the annual Ulster Fry breakfast at UK Labour Party Conference.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. I always enjoy attending the UK Labour Conference, and it is great to catch up with friends and comrades.

The bonds of friendship and solidarity between Labour in Ireland and Britain will remain strong and steadfast, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.

The strong links between people and businesses in Britain and Ireland will also endure, whatever happens next. But there is no doubt that Brexit is potentially catasthropic for the Irish economy, as well as for progress and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

The range of outcomes that UK Labour deems acceptable — from close alignment with the EU to simply remaining a full member — are infinitely better for Ireland than the frankly dangerous policies being pursued by Boris Johnson.

Johnson does not care if the UK crashes out of the EU because he — and those surrounding him — are coccooned from the disastrous impact that would have on jobs.

The Tory government is also deaf to the very real harm that significant border controls would have on Northern Ireland. They claim to care, but the fact that they are willing to risk a ‘no deal’ exit for short-term political gain makes it clear that they are not acting in the long-term interest of peace and stability.

Opinion polls show that a majority of Tory members would be content for Northern Ireland to leave the UK, if that was the price of leaving the EU, which is frankly incredible for members of the so-called Conservative and Unionist Party.

Politics in Northern Ireland has been badly disrupted by Brexit. Firstly, the DUP’s decision to back Leave added another layer of division on top of the deep separation between the nationalist and unionist traditions, although other unionists — including business organisations and farmers — did back remain, as did the majority of voters in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, the role of the DUP’s ten MPs in propping up the Conservative government is seen as having lessened their desire to restore self-government in the Stormont Assembly. It’s also seen as undermining any pretence that the British government can be neutral with respect to Northern Ireland.

However, as Boris Johnson no longer has any hope of commanding a majority in this Parliament, even with the DUP’s support, their moment in the sun has ended.

When the cold reality of the economics of Brexit hits home, and the weight of evidence showing that Northern Ireland’s economy will be worst affected of the whole UK by a hard Brexit, I would hope that the DUP might relent and admit that remaining in the EU would be the best outcome for Northern Ireland’s people after all.

Labour’s commitment to another referendum provides the DUP with a pathway, which I hope they will take.

The Conservatives under Boris Johnson offer nothing but blithe assurances and implausible technological solutions to the problems that would be created by border infrastructure in Northern Ireland. And that is the position today, despite the media reports to the contrary.

Similarly, East-West trade between Ireland and Britain would be massively disrupted, and we already see the signs with Irish manufacturing firms laying off temporary staff and official estimates suggesting that one in every 25 jobs in tourism could be lost in the first months of a hard Brexit.

You know that the Irish Labour Party would love to see the UK remain in and fully engaged in the European Project.

That is in Ireland’s self-interest, but I genuinely believe it is in the self-interest of working people across the UK also.

I’ll give you three quick examples of why I think that the UK is better in the EU.

Firstly, as Boris Johnson has shown, any new Conservative leader can renge on promises and reassurances given by previous Prime Ministers. Theresa May promised to respect European standards of social and environmental protection. Boris Johnson would sweep them away as part of his appalling project of a Buccaneering Britain.

No one should need reminding that buccaneers are, by definition, unscrupulous and vicious pirates. No right thinking person would wish the UK to become a rogue “Singapore on the Thames” seeking to aggressively assail the EU’s economy.

A second reason why Ireland is better off in the EU, and why the UK is too, is that trade union rights are stronger in European countries than elsewhere in the world.

Unfortunately, only a third of Irish workers benefit from collective bargaining between trade unions and employers, which leads to higher wages and greater job security.

This compares to over 80% in many North and West European countries.

Part of Labour’s central mission in Ireland is to give all working people access to the protections and benefits of trade union membership.

But barely more than a quarter [26%] of UK workers enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining either.

If the UK exits the EU, there is risk of a future government seeking to jump start the economy by adopting radical free market solutions. For example, only 12% of workers in the USA benefit from collective bargaining where some 27 states have laws that restrict trade unions. And only 16% in New Zealand.

New Zealand was a textbook example of free market radicalism in the 1980s and 90s. It is no surprise that income inequality has also grown enormously in New Zealand since this period, just as trade unionism has declined.

Trade unionism’s future is stronger in the EU.

The third reason to remain in the EU is, I think, the most crucial.

There is a stark difference between trade and economic integration.

Most visions of Brexit — whether hard or soft — rely on an outdated concept of trade.

The UK does import and export finished goods, and that’s important for jobs.

But the UK also imports and exports materials and components, which are processed in the UK before being sent elsewhere, either for final processing or as a finished product.

There is simply no Brexit deal — no matter how close a future relationship — that will allow the UK to remain genuinely inside the integrated European economy.

Even when it comes to manufacturing, the UK needs to remain inside the Single Market to facilitate frictionless supply lines.

The Single Market is also vital for the services economy, which now accounts for three quarters of all European output.

What the Single Market does — in a nutshell — is to facilitate free and fair trade in services, as well as facilitating close integration in the production of goods.

This brings us back to Theresa May’s infamous and misguided mantra of taking back control of the UK’s laws, borders and money.

Across the EU, we have voluntarily aligned our laws to ensure a level playing field of standards and rights.

We share a single external border to allow free movement of workers to maximise the opportunities and benefits of economic integration.

And whether in the Euro zone or not, we all adhere to shared rules on monetary policy to avoid the old trade wars based on currency devaluation.

Lo and behold, we share common laws, borders and money.

This enhances our economic power, and represents an application of political sovereignty, not its diminution.

Bluntly, it creates far more jobs and higher wages than if Ireland tried to go it alone, as the EU has a population of 513 million and economic output of 18.8 trillion dollars.

Global economic exchange is increasingly between multi-national blocs, rather than between individual countries.

For example, I’ve long had an interest in the economic development of sub-Saharan Africa.

In July this year, Nigeria joined the African Continental Free Trade Area, which will be the world’s largest free trade area in population terms, with over 1 billion people. And it will have economic output of 3.4 trillion US dollars.

Incredibly, only 16% of international trade by African countries takes place between African countries themselves. The free trade area is expected to boost that by at least 60% by 2022.

Rightly, Nigerian trade unions had to be convinced it was the right thing to do, which delayed the decision.

But this free trade area will create jobs and increase economic output across Africa, which is a welcome step on the road to these countries becoming as developed as European countries, which in time they can and will achieve.

The world map is now a patchwork of multi-national free trade areas, single markets and customs areas.

By seeking to exit the EU, the UK is going against a largely successful global trend.

From an Irish perspective, the UK could and should be highly influential in reforming the European Union.

When social democrats and socialists were at the helm across Europe, the EU had a much stronger emphasis on social and economic rights, and improving people’s living standards.

That can be the future direction of a strengthened Social Europe, and I hope the UK Labour Party will be in government in the UK, as a full member of the EU, to help make it happen.

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