Experience Abroad: The Impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland

By Allison Schlossberg

The outcome of the referendum in the United Kingdom in June 2016 sent shockwaves through the entire global community. Even though multiple world leaders like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel encouraged British voters to remain within the European Union, ultimately the majority of voters decided to leave the organization. I could not believe the results, and remember reading and watching the coverage extensively to understand the reasons why British citizens wanted to leave the EU. One of the most striking reports was that Google searches for “What is the EU?” skyrocketed after the results were finalized. I could not comprehend that citizens of a Western European, highly educated democracy were seemingly not aware of the impact of the EU in their country prior to Election Day.

Prior to my arrival in Northern Ireland, I only considered the effects of Brexit in terms of international trade and labor. I knew there would be a large impact on workers from other European countries living in the UK and that free trade agreements would need to be renegotiated between the UK and other entities. I recognized that, in general, working class voters were frustrated with the impact of globalization. However, I did not reflect on the breakdown of the vote by country within the UK until I arrived in Belfast.

England and Wales voted to leave, while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. This is significant because both Scotland and Ireland have constituencies that want independence from the UK. After further review of the districts in Northern Ireland, it is apparent that there is a connection between voting patterns and religion. In general, Catholic/Nationalist areas voted to remain, while Protestant/Unionist areas voted to leave the EU. The southern districts, closer to the Republic of Ireland’s borders, voted to remain, while the northern ones voted to leave. With the exception of Belfast, where the breakdown is mostly similar based on neighborhoods, the correlation is noteworthy.

One of the most fascinating meetings we attended in Belfast was at the European Commission. An employee explained some of the many complexities that will be discussed in Brexit negotiations and why she believes Catholics/Nationalists voted to remain and Protestants/Unionists voted to leave the EU. Her main argument is that many Protestant/Unionist citizens were either unaware or opposed to the large role that the EU had, and continues to have, in the peace process. She had friends call her the day after the referendum to ask how they should have voted and for more information on what could happen in Northern Ireland. Many voters were simply unaware of the various contributions that the EU funded and supported in Northern Ireland.

For example, the EU created the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUBP) that has committed over €2.26 billion of funding within Northern Ireland and border regions in projects related to peace and reconciliation from 1995 until 2020. Since 1995, the SEUBP has funded programs focused on reducing sectarianism in urban and rural communities, creating stable governmental institutions, and building infrastructure to promote tourism and economic growth.

Some of these projects, like the Peace Bridge we crossed in Derry/Londonderry are quite visible, but others like the Monaghan County Council program to promote reconciliation in the region, were not as well known. Monaghan County is located on the border in the Republic of Ireland, but is part of the Ulster region. Because the SEUBP is a EU program, the funding will end in 2020. Even though the UK is scheduled to fully exit from the EU in 2018, SEUBP has committed to honor all contractual agreements until 2020. After that, the future of funding for various peace programs is uncertain.

In addition to the uncertainty about the future of peace programs due to Brexit, the UK will now have to decide how to handle a plethora of other important policy issues. First, the UK and the Republic of Ireland will have to negotiate securing the border. Currently, the border region is relatively peaceful after many years of conflict. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland have porous borders where one can drive or take the train without any controls. In fact, the border is so arbitrary that it goes through homes and farms. With the exception of a small sign, it is impossible to know when one is in the Republic of Ireland or the UK. Will this change due to the UK leaving the European Union? Currently, the UK and the Republic of Ireland “opted out” of the Schengen Agreement, but they do have the Common Travel Area (CTA). Essentially, the CTA allows for British and Irish citizens to travel with minimal controls to the other territory. The UK and Ireland/the EU will not only have to discuss security procedures between the borders, but also decide how to pay for them. Will the burden be on the UK or the EU? Will the EU take responsibility, or require the Republic of Ireland to completely fund the initiatives? These are complex debates, but are important to consider because border security and disputes may become a problem during the Brexit negotiations.

Another important topic that Brexit negotiators will have to discuss related to Northern Ireland is agricultural subsidies. Through the EU Structural and Investment Programme, the EU Rural Development Fund (ERDF) has committed €308 million through 2020. This funding is focused on research and development, increasing subject matter experts for future employment, and shifting towards a “Low Carbon Economy”. Currently, 90% of a farmer’s salary in Northern Ireland is paid for through an EU program.  This is a significant amount of money that will need to be replaced in order to maintain stability. Will the UK government in Westminster provide the funding, or will it be left to the MLAs in Stormont to fight about it for months?

This seemingly minute issue will become a large problem if not addressed in a responsible manner. If the farmers are left without a salary, they will need a new way to support their families. The UK or Northern Ireland will have to fund programs for education and training in new jobs. If not, the farmers and their families may obtain illegal jobs, like selling drugs or other organized criminal activities. This is especially concerning in Northern Ireland considering the paramilitary organizations still exist. The original purpose of the EU funding was to create a stable and prosperous society so people could focus on their jobs and families and not sectarian conflict. This issue is a large concern that I did not consider prior to living in Northern Ireland.

The Brexit negotiations will also have to discuss the future of labor and educational exchange programs. Currently EU citizens can work and live in the UK and vice versa with relative ease. The negotiations will have to create a pathway for employment visas for the thousands of EU citizens working in the UK, or a new program that reintegrates them into another country’s workforce. This is a serious concern because it will have an impact on thousands, if not millions of families. As mentioned earlier, unemployment leads to potential societal conflicts. Many individuals in Northern Ireland work in other parts of Europe because there is a higher standard of living and quality of life. If they have to return, it could create a renewed sense of ethnic pride and potentially reignite sectarian tensions.

Finally, UK citizens may no longer be eligible to enroll in study abroad or exchange programs supported by the EU. The Erasmus Programme has been highly successful in providing opportunities for EU citizens to study, intern and volunteer in other EU member countries. This program has been providing scholarships for students since the 1980s and has contributed to creating a more cohesive Europe. Students have the ability to learn about different cultures and meet individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds with the purpose of promoting a common European identity. Erasmus has been highly successful, and the British negotiators will have to create a new program or come to an agreement with the EU on the future of student exchanges.

Overall, Brexit will lead to a number of changes in the UK and the entire EU. The negotiations will have to create solutions and compromises on topics such as border security, agricultural subsidies and participation in student exchange programs. While the outcomes will affect all UK citizens, individuals in Northern Ireland are especially vulnerable. Farmers may lose the majority of their salaries, police presence may increase on the borders, and Northern Ireland citizens working in France may have to leave and find employment in their hometowns. Currently, no one can predict the outcome of the negotiations, even an employee at the European Commission. It is important that those involved in the discussions think through their decisions to ensure that Northern Ireland is protected from major changes that could disrupt the relative lack of violence in the region and reignite sectarian conflict.


Allison Schlossberg is an M.A. candidate in the Democracy & Governance program at Georgetown University. She received her undergraduate degree from The George Washington University in International Affairs with concentrations in Security Policy and Latin America.