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Brexit: Local Impact

Oral Answers to Questions — Enterprise, Trade and Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 10th November 2015.

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Photo of Fearghal McKinney Fearghal McKinney Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 10th November 2015

1. Mr McKinney asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment for his assessment of the impact that the EU referendum will have on the local economy. (AQO 9041/11-16)

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I have an opportunity to wish you well, Mr Speaker, after your announcement this morning.

My Department became aware of an existing research study by Oxford Economics that was seeking UK-wide funding to examine the potential impacts of a UK exit from the EU under a selection of plausible scenarios. We have now accepted a proposal from Oxford Economics to join its UK study and to have its work extended to Northern Ireland following a formal approach that we made to it during October.

Photo of Fearghal McKinney Fearghal McKinney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister. While the Oxford Economics approach is welcome, given the scale of EU assistance to Northern Ireland in agriculture, infrastructure, Peace and innovation, does the Minister agree that the Northern Irish economy would continue to experience a net benefit from remaining in the EU?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

The Oxford Economics research study proposes to examine a range of the potential scenarios, not just a simple in/out scenario. The study we have commissioned will look at, for example, the Norwegian option, which is to leave the European Union but become a member of the European economic area; the Swiss option, which is a new settlement as a product of continued bilateral negotiation; the Turkish option whereby the UK would enter into a customs union with the European Union similar to the current arrangements adopted by Turkey; and also complete withdrawal involving a complete repatriation of powers, with the UK's EU trading relationship determined according to the work of the World Trade Organization's most-favoured-nation criteria. We will look at all the specific impacts of these potential exit scenarios in Northern Ireland across issues such as GDP, sector output, trade volume, household spending and unemployment.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP

Will the Minister tell us the terms of reference that have been agreed between the Department and the Oxford Economics research group?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

We have set them specifically to look at what I have explained; the different options available and the potential impact those will have across the whole range of scenarios. We have to look very seriously at the implications of being in and being out. if we are to be in, then what potential benefits will there be, and, if we are to be out, what pitfalls will there be and what potential successes could we have, such as free-trade agreements and specific economic zones with areas where we currently do not have them. Let us take all the research and consider it in the round, looking specifically at a range of metrics; GDP, output by sector, trade volume, household spending, employment and unemployment. Comparisons will be made throughout the United Kingdom as a whole. The short paper exercise and access to a database detailing the results are expected to be available to us by the end of this financial year.

Photo of Phil Flanagan Phil Flanagan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his answers. I note that there is no firm opinion from him on what his or his party's view is on our future position within Europe. Will he give us an indication of whether he would be willing to support the call for any decision on a referendum here to be binding, so that if the majority of people here vote to stay within the European Union, that is what should happen?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

As we are part of the United Kingdom then, legally, we will be part of the United Kingdom when taking part in the United Kingdom referendum. It is the "United Kingdom referendum": the clue is in the title.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Does the Minister agree that it would be liberating for this trading nation, the United Kingdom, to be freed, in consequence of leaving the EU, of the shackles of bureaucracy on our economy and that it would be liberating with regard to the growth markets which are outside the EU in that we would have the free facility to make our own trade agreements where there is growth rather than be tied to the moribund EU economy, which is now down to less than 20% of the world's GDP?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

All that will need to be considered in the round. Members have asked me about the DUP's position, and I stand fully behind what Diane Dodds has done. I am not, however, answering questions as a DUP Minister; I am answering questions as the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister. We have to take a number of issues into account. There are particular advantages in being part of a market of 500 million people. We have to look at the scenarios that I outlined to see what the benefits are, what brings in the most GDP and employment and what represents the best value for United Kingdom citizens.

We also need to consider the scenarios that the honourable Member pointed out — very well, I have to add — of the potential, should we leave the European Union and look towards what we can do with free trade in some of the world's emerging markets. The honourable Member made those points well; I suppose that we trained you well when you were a DUP MEP.

Photo of Claire Sugden Claire Sugden Independent

I am glad to hear that the Minister acknowledges the pitfalls of being in and out. Given that farming underpins our economy, has he met any farming groups to discuss the impact of a Brexit on that industry?

Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP

I have met a number of farming groups on a range of issues. We have to look, for example, towards the common agricultural policy, but we also need expert opinion on what would be available to Northern Ireland farmers if we were not paying money into the European Union. What scenarios could there be? I understand that the agrifood sector is a key beneficiary of EU membership as a trading partner and as the result of direct funding from the sector. I also acknowledge that we exported over £1·1 billion in sales to the European Union, although the exact impact on those sales, according to research, depends on the terms that the UK Government would negotiate with the European Union on the movement of goods and services.

The UK, including Northern Ireland, would face a departure from the common agricultural policy and its related subsidies and regulations. I know that many local farmers rely on the single farm payment in order to be viable, but we also need to look at the money that would be available for them were we to be out.