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Sunday, 12 June 2016

On the European Referendum.

Before I start, I should warn you that this is a very long post, and a break from my usual, word-centric concerns. It is however an issue which I feel is very important. For the 'TL;DR' crowd, and for ease of navigation, I will include a bullet-point summary at the end, but the piece is intended to be a coherent argument, so I would recommend making a cup of tea and sitting down to read the whole thing.

Introduction

In under two weeks, we will be asked to make a decision as to whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union. This is probably the biggest political decision that our generation is likely to face, and many of us (myself included) feel like we are being forced to make this choice without being given adequate information. Under these conditions, many of us will go to the polling stations armed with little more than gut-feeling. In a way, this is how we always vote – choosing a political party is often an emotional decision which has more in common with choosing a football team than it does with balancing rational arguments – but this time the dividing line is less clear, with most of the media attention focused at the civil war within the Conservative Party. I believe that we should remain in the EU, but this is largely based on instinct. Over the course of this post, I intend to turn this instinct into a rational argument. This will not be a neutral post, but I will explore both sides, I am going to reference where my information has come from so that it can be verified, and I will try to avoid sensationalism.

What advantages does the EU bring?

One of the big problems of this referendum is that the British public does not really have a clear picture of what the EU is for. It is best known for allowing free movement of people within its borders, and for allegedly being very picky about the size and shape of our fruit and veg. One of the problems the remain camp seem to be facing is that many of its arguments for staying are based around abstract economic concepts, which do not engage the public as easily the leave campaign’s appeals to fear and patriotism. But, dry though the details may be, the fact remains that currently we export more goods and services to EU countries than we do to anywhere else in the world (44% of our trade goes there – worth around £226 billion – with the next biggest buyer of British goods and services being the USA at 17%)(source here). While leaving the European Union would not necessarily exclude us from trading with member countries there is no way of telling how long it would take to negotiate a new trade deal, and countries which have trade deals with the EU but are not members (like Norway or Switzerland) are required to follow EU regulations in the production of these goods and services, but have no say in what those regulations are (source here).

The big economic stuff is difficult to sell though, particularly as we don’t know what would happen if we were to leave. Perhaps we should look at how the EU affects our day to day lives in terms of employment law. It should be noted that, while UK legislation exceeds the minimum requirement for things like paid holiday and paid maternity leave, the European Union was instrumental in implementing these rights in the first place, and guarantees that it cannot be reduced below a certain level. It should also be noted that in some cases, while the UK currently exceed minimum expectations, British MEPs tried to block the initial inclusion of these rights into European law (a full analysis by an employment law specialist can be found here – you’ll have to scroll down below the initial graphic that he is responding to). Keep in mind too that the Conservative party has a track record of trying to opt out of things like the Work Time Directive, which determines how many hours per week employers can legally make their employees work (according to this Independent article).

The European Union has also played an important role in developing and enforcing laws relating to the environment, with legislation governing things like quality of air and water, carbon emissions levels and use of pesticides. Again, these laws would not necessarily be repealed if we voted to leave the EU, but it should be remembered that the UK government has tried to block some of this environmental legislation from being passed in Europe (more detail can be found in this Friend of the Earth Report). There is more to be said for staying in the European Union, but as we are talking about maintaining the status quo, it might be best considered by comparing it with some of the key arguments of leave campaign.

Why some people want to leave, and why I think we shouldn’t.

Cost
One of the most commonly cited reasons for leaving the EU is the cost of membership. It is true that the UK contributed £13 billion to the EU budget last year, once you remove the £5 billion instant rebate (actually more of a discount, as it never leaves the country), but it is also true that £4 billion of the EU budget was returned to Britain through investment in agriculture or in poorer regions of the country (see here). Yes, theoretically if we were to leave the European Union, this money could be invested directly into redeveloping poorer regions of the country, but we have to ask, do we trust the current government (or worse, Johnson and co.) to do this? Just look at what happened to Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse.

There are two other factors which need to be considered when discussing the financial cost of the EU. Firstly, that £13 billion sounds like a big number, but it amounts to only 1% of total UK spending (According to this YouGov breakdown of how tax is spent). Secondly, we should consider this figure in relation to the benefits that EU membership has for the British economy as a whole. This is a difficult figure to estimate, but according to this New Statesman article, the Confederation of British Industry puts the number somewhere between £62 and £78 billion, a fair return on our investment, given that it also helps to fund the benefits already mentioned.

Immigration
Perhaps more widely discussed by the Out Camp is the issue of immigration. This is an emotive issue which is hard for people to discuss rationally and, while the idea of controlled immigration is not intrinsically racist, it is an argument which attracts racists like flies to a turd. Arguments about immigration from the EU tend to centre around two contradictory strands: that migrants from within the EU are taking too many jobs which could be done by British people, and that migrants from within the EU are unfairly draining the British welfare system.

The second of these claims is easier to unpick. Research shows that people who came to Britain within the EU since 2000 have tended to contribute more in tax than they take in benefits. This picture is somewhat complicated when we consider people who arrived in the UK before the year 2000, as these migrants tend to be older and, like many older people, require additional help to come with the effects of age (source). People in this category have been in the UK for at least fifteen years – surely long enough to justify equal treatment with those who happen to have been born here.

Related to worries about the increased pressure on our benefits system is the concern that ‘health tourism’ is placing unfair strain on the NHS. The figures involved in this are complex, and take into account a number of different groups, including regular visitors to the UK from the EU (people who are resident here for part of the year, like students) and British citizens who live abroad. Remember too that while Britain is a member of the EU, you or I would receive free or reduced price healthcare if we were regular visitors or ‘non-permanent residents’ in other EU countries. If you are really interested in the figures, you can look here. All I’m going to say is that most of these numbers seem to represent visitors to the country who happen to need the hospital when they are here. For the few that do come here specifically for medical purposes, the NHS is not a charity and it should not be treated as such, but if somebodies medical problems are serious enough, and the cost of treating them is prohibitive enough that somebody thought they’d be better off travelling to an entirely different country for treatment, I’m not that interested in hounding them too much over it. In any case, most EU countries have pretty good medical care, so these people are likely to be coming from outside the EU. While Brexit might give us slightly more control over our borders, we will presumably still be open to tourists – unless we’re going to give each one a medical screening, I’m not too sure how leaving the EU would prevent this from happening. And one last word on this subject – hospitals have the option to charge non UK patients for services (outside of accident and emergency) but the costs of recovering this debt is not too far off the amount itself (source).

That other aspect of the migrant debate – that EU migrants are flooding the job market – is perhaps even more emotive. Understandably, people who have been out of work for a long time are not necessarily going to want to listen when people with apparently better job prospects (journalists, politician, English teachers with blogs, for example) tell them that they are losing out on jobs because they aren’t trying hard enough now (the ‘they do the jobs we don’t want to’ argument) or they didn’t work try hard enough at school (the ‘they are better qualified’ argument). I’m not suggesting that completely unrestricted immigration is the best of ideas, but this seems to be how most people think EU migration works. Before we can think about changing Europe, we must first decide to stay, so I’m going to start by looking at the migration situation logically, and then consider some of the facts and figures.

If unemployed British people cannot find work because there is not enough work to go around, leaving the EU may reduce some of the competition for jobs, but it could also plunge the economy into uncharted territory – evidence suggests that over 3 million jobs are linked to trade with EU countries. Jeopardising trade with Europe could put these jobs at risk, leading to an even more competitive job market. In this case staying is our best option.

If there are jobs available and they are being given to people who were raised and educated in the rest of the EU in preference to people who were raised and educated in the UK, we must ask ourselves why. If the answer to that question is that the people from outside of the UK are better qualified, this highlights a problem within our own institutions, and leaving the EU will not change this. Depending on how we leave, we may be able to reduce access to the UK and therefore limit competition but if we do, we may find ourselves with a shortage of skilled workers. In this scenario, our best option would not be to leave the EU, but to better prepare our workforce for the 21st Century economy. If, on the other hand, the reason is that immigrants are taking jobs that British workers are unwilling to do, I suspect the reason lies not in laziness, but in a benefits system which does not make it easy for people to take part time, low paid or precarious jobs, as they may end up worse off than before. Reforming benefits is important, but discussion of it is beyond the scope of this post, and I will not attempt to do it here. I will say that leaving the EU would not make these jobs more attractive, or solve the problems which make British workers reluctant to take them in the first place.

If neither of the above scenarios are true – if there are jobs available, and employers are not choosing people from outside of the UK in preference to people from inside the UK – then we are left with a simpler picture. Finding work is difficult, and has been since the economic crash. Having a larger potential workforce (anyone in the EU who wants to work in Britain, for example) does make this more difficult, but when the economic benefits of being a member of the European Union help to create jobs, and when the European union helps to fund development of poorer areas, leaving is not the best solution. The best solution is to find ways to create more jobs, and to acknowledge that, as finding work in the current economic climate is difficult, we should find ways to better support those who are looking for work, both financially and practically, rather than vilifying them in the tabloid press and creating an increasingly punitive culture within the welfare state.

I suspect that there may be some element of truth in all of the scenarios described above, and again, while I broadly agree with the principle of free movement, I am not saying that we should not perhaps revisit some of the conditions of this principle. Staying in the EU gives us the best position to negotiate this, particularly when we consider the fact that, if we were to leave, but wanted to remain part of the European Free Trade Agreement (the least risky option, economically), then we would likely have to accept the free movement of people between the UK and the rest of Europe as part of the deal, as it is in Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. A fairly detailed account of the issues which would face Britain if it wanted to leave the EU and become part of the EFTA can be found here. So far, I have simplified the situation around immigration in the same way that many in the leave campaign do – by conflating all immigration into the UK. In fact, immigration from outside of the EU has traditionally been significantly higher, and is currently about equal. Even if we were to leave the EU, we would still potentially have large numbers of people coming to live and work in the UK (source).

Then there are the benefits of migration. Apart from the previously mentioned fact that migrants have made a net contribution to the UK, the immigration of young, working-age people is a way of spreading the tax burden created by an aging population (as shown in this 2013 study). It also helps us to cope with shortages of suitable workers in specific sectors, for example, recent research suggests that 26% of NHS doctors were trained outside of the UK (source), and 10% were from other places in the EU (source). I haven’t been able to find any statistics, but I very much doubt that there are large numbers of British-born doctors waiting in dole queues because of this. Sticking with the NHS, recent cuts in the number of training places available for nurses (source) mean that we are likely to become even more reliant on migrants to fill these vital roles in our communities.

And migrants don’t just work and pay taxes. They buy things in our shops, they start business, and have families. The ratio might not be a simple one to one, but larger populations also create jobs, as there is greater demand for goods and services. Public institutions like schools and hospitals might be put under increased pressure in the short term, but over time, the increased tax revenue will allow for more investment in these services, balancing out and creating more jobs in the process. Perhaps more important is the cultural impact. Since at least the end of World War Two[1], British culture has been enhanced and expanded through interaction with other cultures. We are lucky to have access to such a wide range of cultural experiences. Some people worry that this is undermining traditional British culture, but I can still get cream tea, watch a football match, drink a pint of Banks’ Mild brewed just over ten miles away from my house, or go watch a Shakespeare play. I can even, if I am so inclined, go Morris dancing. But thanks to sixty odd years of multi-cultural Britain, I can get jerk chicken, rice and peas delivered to my house, watch a Bollywood film at Star City or go to a pub where the Polish chefs serve szwajacar and suflak alongside British pub classics[2]. Again, I know that two out of three of these examples have nothing to do with the EU, but the principle that the mixing of cultures can enrich our experience remains.

Sovereignty
Vote Leave campaigners also love to talk about sovereignty, the power the country has to make its own laws. It is true that as part of the EU, we allow some decisions about the laws affecting us to be made elsewhere, but this is also true of other international institutions, like NATO. If we are concerned about our ability to make the decisions which are best for the country, then we should consider that, if the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, it may be best to transfer some of our sovereignty elsewhere (source). Even with this transfer of sovereignty, Britain maintains some element of control through the European Parliament (where we can send MEPs elected within by our European constituencies) and through the Council of the European Union (where ministers from national governments meet to discuss specific policy areas). As a nation, we abdicate some of our sovereignty to the European Union in the same way that as individuals, we agree to live by certain laws in exchange for the protection that the law offers. Ultimately, while we have allowed the European Union to make some decisions for us, the very fact that we are able to hold a referendum shows that we still retain the option to take this transferred sovereignty back – the question is whether it would be advantageous to do so. I believe that the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that we are better off staying in the EU, and that the leave camp’s arguments about sovereignty have more to do with populist notions of national prestige than they do with any real world benefits.

Human Rights
Related to issues of sovereignty is the issue of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Human Rights Act enshrined in British law in 1998. The current government has said that it wants to replace this with a British Bill of Rights, and some people who want to leave the EU use the Human Rights Act as another example of the loss of British Sovereignty. If this is something which concerns you, I suggest that you look at the list of rights protected by this act, here, and then ask yourself ‘are there any rights here which I do not want?’ Part of the problem here is that some elements of the media have caused us to erroneously think of human rights as something which prevents us from punishing criminals, or requires us to give porn to murderers or KFC to thieves, rather than as a universal standard for how all human beings should be treated. For more information, including a debunking of the ridiculous cases above, look here. If the British public were to leave the European Union because they no longer wished to be bound by the ECHR, it might be the first time in history that people have chosen to be given less legal rights. It would also be futile, as the ECHR is a treaty which is separate from our membership of the European Union, and is instead related to our membership of the Council of Europe – an international body which contains several non-EU states, and which the British government has no plans to pull out of (source).

Security
Some people worry that overly lenient application of human right’s law, combined with the European Union’s open borders policy, has created a threat to British security, particularly in our current age of international terrorism. There are several things to consider here. Firstly, we are not part of the Schengen Area, meaning that we retain the right to carry out passport checks at our borders, so we could still prevent known security threats from entering Britain. Secondly, the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in France and Belgium last year were French and Belgian citizens, so even if we were to close our borders completely (which not even the most extreme in the Vote Leave camp are planning on doing) we would still have some risk of home grown terrorism, while our current status allows us to make use of various resources, such as the European Criminal Records System. Leaving would not automatically deny us access to these things, but neither would it guarantee that we can continue to use them (source).

Conclusions

The European Union is not perfect. No large organisation is, but I believe that the benefits of membership far outweigh the risks of leaving. In this post, I have given a large number of reasons, often centred around complicated issues, but in the end, the main issue is whether you believe that our best option in a changing world is to co-operate with our neighbours or to go it alone. From our position in the EU, we can help shape a better future, both for the UK and for people across the continent.


Summary

  • I believe that Britain should remain part of the European Union.
  • Membership of the EU comes with a number of economic advantages which we may lose if we leave.
  • The EU has helped to protect the environment, and workers rights.
  • We are required to contribute towards the EU budget, but this allows us access to numerous benefits, and costs only a small part of our national budget.
  • Immigration has brought benefits to our economy, society and culture.
  • We have given the EU some control over our legislation, but this is a normal part of international co-operation.
  • The Human Right Act is not directly tied to the EU, and why would we want to give it up?
  • Being part of the EU allows for easy co-operation between different countries' security forces.
Further Reading
While writing this post, I have found the following websites to be balanced and informative:





[1] Yes, I know I’m talking about non-EU migration here, but the principle still applies, so bear with me.
[2] The Stile in Wolverhampton, just round the corner from where I used to live.


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