Interview / Jane Morrice: “The best solution for the whole of UK is to decide to stay in the EU”

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On March 7th, the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration (SNSPA), organized the “European Citizenship Beyond Brexit” conference, a debate on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and the consequences of this process on the European citizenship. During this event, attended experts and influential people from the political sphere, we had the opportunity to talk to Mrs. Jane Morrice, former vice-president of the European Economic Social Committee (EEC). She is a former politician from Northern Irlend, born in Belfast in 1954 and educated at the Methodist College in Belfast and a graduate of the University of Ulster. She began her career as a journalist in Brussels, then she joined BBC Northern Ireland as a reporter covering current affairs for both radio and television.

She became the BBC Business and Labour Relations Correspondent in 1989. In 1992, Morrice was appointed Head of the European Commission  Office in Northern Ireland, representing the institution for five years. She took a particular interest in the establishment of the Special EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland. She entered politics in 1996, when she joined the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition. In 1998 she was elected in North Down, holding that seat until the 2003 election. Mrs Morrice was former deputy chief commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. The areas of interest in which Jane activated: External Relations, Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, Human Rights, Foreign and security policy, Transport and Culture.

In 2018 Jane Morrice started a petition, called “People’s Petition of Concern”. The aim of the process is to grant Northern Ireland Honorary EU Associate Membership as a “European Place of Global Peacebuilding” to protect the peace process and promote peacebuilding worldwide. In her own words, the petition “respects and reflects the will of the people of Northern Ireland to stay in the EU, the UK and the British/Irish Council”.

You are the initiator of the Honorary EU Association petition, which aims to maintain the status of Northern Ireland as part of both the EU and the United Kingdom, as previously mentioned in the Good Friday Agreement. If this petition fails, what do you envision to be the political future of Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit?

Staying in a single market, staying in the customs union, it’s very close to what I am proposing, but I want I call it “the backstop with bells on”. It means Northern Ireland getting all the funding, the access, everything…all the positive things it always had from EU membership. So that I want…we describe it at home as it’s not having our cake and eating it, it is our bread and butter and we deserve it! I don’t know whether that answers your question with regard to the status of Northern Ireland. If the deal goes through and the backstop goes through, which is the protection of Northern Ireland and of the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, which would became a EU frontier. If that goes through, that’s as far as I concern the second best solution. The best solution for me is for the whole of UK to rethink and to revote and to decide to stay in the EU. If that doesn’t happen, then, at some stage along the way, the UK decides to have a referendum to rejoin the EU.

Is a soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland still considered as a solution in the Brexit negotiation process?

It’s not a solution, it is something that all side have committed to absolutely and that is, you know, protecting the Good Friday Agreement, this vitally important peace agreement that is twenty plus years old. It’s about protecting that and having no hard border on the island of Ireland and all sides, the UK Government, all EU member states have committed to have no hard border. The big issue, which is the stumbling block in this negotiation, is how to square that circle. I often use the example of the chlorinated chicken, because in parts outside of the EU there are countries…I think America is one of them..that put chlorinated chicken. So when that arrives, if there is a trade agreement with the United States…if that chlorinated chicken arrives in to the Northern Ireland what happens at the border?!? And it’s not just the chicken, it is also the chicken pie, it Is also chicken cut up in a pie! The Portuguese don’t want it, the Romanians don’t want it and the Greeks don’t want it and no one in a Single Market wants it…how do we stop it coming in? That is the big difficulty of squaring the circle. Do you need custom checks, do you need regulations?!? My suggestion is to have your checks at ports and airports. It’s not a border on the Irish Sea, it’s about regulatory checks in places where there are easiest to happen, not on the border in Ireland…

What has been the role of the EESC in the Brexit negotiation process?How did the members of this institution have contributed to the first agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom?

Well, I start by saying the members of EESC are nonpolitical. We are representatives of the civil society, we are trade unions, we are business owners, we are employers, consumers, women’s groups, youth groups. So our work in the EESC is to scrutinize legislation and to give our opinion of what we think. Unfortunately, decision makers must ask us, but they aren’t obliged to take on board what we say. So on the issue of Brexit, what we’ve done in Group 3, which deals with diversity about consumers, youth groups and farmers…and we had several meetings on the border, and also in Belfast and where we shown other members of the EESC the situation in Northern Ireland, so they were much aware of it. I think that’s been really our work, making people very aware of what is happening in Northern Ireland in particular. And I say in my personal experience as a member of EESC, I’m greeted daily when I’m there about a sadness, a shock at the start and then a sadness that the UK is going. But there is very little we can do, except maybe in the future have some important civil dialogue, relationship with UK civil society which keeps going…that is something we are committed to

As seen on the EESC website, the institution is advocating for more involvement of European citizens in the future EP elections. How important is it for the representatives of the civil society to get involved in this advocacy process?

It’s about energizing, infusing ordinary citizens to start appreciating what the EU is, because that’s our role. For example, if you take youth groups (like scouts) or women’s groups or consumers groups..it’s about an education process. A big problem with the European elections has been the lack of engagement, we had very low turnouts of Europeans – particularly young Europeans – in the European elections, so there needs to be very big information, education, communication campaigns to get young people in particular to value what is the European Union. And I do blame the EU institutions for not being much more positive about what the EU does that is good. And I think Brexit is a very good example of people not knowing first of all how the EU works and, second of all, the good that it does and you get so many people in Brexit voting not knowing this things. The EU itself and the institutions have a duty to inform, educate and communicate what the EU does.

Interview granted to Camelia-Andreea Trandafir