Niall Devlin, Contributor
The UK leaving the European Union could mean an end to the Erasmus student exchange programme, as well as cuts to research funding for its universities.
As David Cameron buckles down for a deal with EU leaders on reform of Britain’s terms of membership, uncertainty and speculation has been building up surrounding the possibility of British withdrawal from the European Union, or ‘Brexit’, and the potential implications this might have for Northern Ireland. If the UK votes to leave in the impending in/out referendum on EU membership, it will produce a situation whereby a part of Ireland will have left the EU, with the majority of Ireland remaining in.
Speculation has arisen about the impact Brexit might have on a range of issues from agriculture to implications for the Good Friday Agreement, cross-border relations, trade, freedom of movement and even higher education. There have even been fears about a possible return to political violence in Northern Ireland as a result of a radical shift in the status quo that could be caused by Brexit; however many observers see this possibility as improbable.
Last week Irish Ambassador to Britain, Dan Mulhall, in giving evidence to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, said Brexit could lead to “some kind of customs controls” along the Irish border. When speaking to Bloomberg television this week however, Mr. Mulhall confirmed that the Irish government has been in talks with London with the aim of ensuring that Irish citizens living Britain do not face the same restrictions on their benefits.
A renunciation of EU membership also has implications for NI universities and for higher education, especially in relation to student exchanges and funding for scientific research. The PISP’s Dr Lee McGowan has said that Brexit could bring the Erasmus student exchanges to an end and could limit the opportunities for NI students studying in other parts of the EU.
The UK spends very little on university research funding leaving institutions like Queens having to find revenue through alternative avenues associated with the European Union; including through structures like the European Research Council and European Research Area, as well as through framework programmes like Horizon 2020 (which was established by the EU Commission to invest nearly €80 billion in research and innovation from 2014-2020).
As of yet, there has been very little discussion about the possibility of UK and devolved governments filling the potential void that lack of access to these funding streams will bring. NI’s mainstream parties have already established their positions in respect to EU membership; however with the referendum looking increasingly likely to be held in either June or September of this year and with Assembly elections in May, their positions are likely to come under renewed scrutiny.
The political and economic ramifications of British withdrawal are likely to come to the forefront of political discourse, particularly as we get closer and closer to the date of the referendum.