Leaving the EU could trigger violence in Northern Ireland as the peace process unravels, Lord Mandelson warned today in a major speech attacking Brexit.
The former Northern Ireland Secretary argued “extremists” in the region would welcome the introduction of a “hard” border between the north and south if the UK voted to leave the EU in the June Referendum.
Lord Mandelson claimed he was not expressing “casual or fringe views”, and fears over how the peace process would survive post-Brexit were shared in London, Belfast and Dublin.
He also challenged pro-Brexit supporter London Mayor Boris Johnson to find a European leader who thinks the UK could get a better trade deal with the EU from outside of the organisation.
But it was his comments on the impact of the potential creation of hard border between northern and southern Ireland which were the most striking.
Speaking from the so-called Walkie Talkie building in London, Lord Mandelson said: “The re-imposition of a formalised border would be a radical departure from the established strategy of the administrations in Dublin, London and Belfast.
“Anything in my view that strengthened a sense of separatism between Northern and Southern Ireland – physically, economically, psychologically - has the potential to upset the progress that has been made and serve as a potential source of renewed sectarianism that would always bear the risk of triggering further violence in Ireland, particularly in the North.”
Taking questions after his speech, Lord Mandelson was asked whether he felt the peace process – secured by the-then Labour government in 1998 – was under threat by Brexit.
He replied that the deal was made within the “common framework” of the EU and “if you start pulling threads in that and almost in unidentifiable ways you will find the cement loosening in that wall of strength that we have created that keeps the peace process up and running.”
Lord Mandelson added: “I know that there will be people who say the more separatism we have the better. Let’s put that hard border back between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Let’s make it more difficult to trade, more difficult to travel. It would keep people’s identities apart they might think, it would keep them living apart they might say, it would keep them growing apart, they might suggest.
“In my view that sense of separatism that would emerge from the re-imposition of that border would only serve the extremists, the sectarians, the people who don’t want people to be living together, who like the idea of separate identities and separatism keeping people apart on that island of Ireland.”
Lord Mandelson also used his speech to attack the notion the UK would benefit from a trade deal with the EU similar to the one secured by Canada.
Boris Johnson last week praised the Canadian deal at a Vote Leave event in Kent.
But today Lord Mandelson - a former EU Trade Commissioner - talked down the Canadian model of Brexit and said: “This agreement offers nothing like unhindered access to the Single Market. Farmers face restrictions, carmakers face cumbersome rules over which they have no say. Some EU tariffs are phased out only after seven years."
He added: "What Boris doesn't understand - or wilfully ignores - is that trade deals are elaborate compromises from which those with the greatest negotiating power benefit most and countries even of our size and proximity ultimately have to settle for what they're offered.
"That's the real world rather than the fantasy world Boris and his fellow Brexiters occupy."
When asked by the Huff Post UK if he would take on Mr Johnson or Ukip leader Nigel Farage in an EU referendum debate, Lord Mandelson raised a slow smile and said: "God, how can I resist the temptation? What an offer."
Reflecting on the last vote the UK had on its membership of the EU, the former Labour Cabinet minister made a surprising admission when he said: "Who made the central political argument that remaining in the European Community, as it then was, was absolutely vital for Britain because it would multiply our strengths and amplify our voice in the world? Yes, Margaret Thatcher made that argument in 1975.
"I wish she could come back, I wish she would come back."
He then added: "There are limits to my power."
Lord Mandelson's comments came as a leading Canadian economist warned the UK could actually lose trade with Canada if it leaves the EU.
Reuters reported that Jayson Myers, chief economist at the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters association, said:"If anything, the UK might actually lose investment from Canada and lose Canadian interest if they're not part of the European market because the European market is much bigger than the UK.
"I don't really see a lot of interest in just doing business with the UK."