It’s less than a week till decision time at the EU Referendum, and the choice we face on 23rd June boils down to the following: (a) Vote for Brexit and see if the UK can make a decent fist of it on our own, (b) vote for Remain and see if we can make the EU work a bit better, or (c) Stay at home and wonder why all the Euro 2016 matches have suddenly stopped. I have tried, throughout the long and tedious months of this neverendum, to be fairly neutral on the debate, listening to everything that I can from all sides and endeavouring to be as impartial an observer as I can. This is far more difficult than it sounds given the fatuous drivel that *both* sides have spat out at certain times and far more often than is seemly.
So, it’s time to try and organise my thoughts and make my decision. The first problem, of course, has been the quality of the debate. It’s been monumentally shit. All chaff, no wheat. So, trying to disseminate through the obfuscation from both sides feels nigh on impossible and 90% of all the folks with whom I’ve spoken still seem to be basing their decision on gut feel alone. Facts are hard to come by and, to be honest, you won’t find too many of them here either. But, undaunted, I shall try to rationalise my understanding of the various factors at play and set out my stall.
I should start by declaring that my background has always been one of being pro-European. I have a natural tendency to believe that the whole can be (and should be) greater than the sum of its parts. Therefore, the idea of a European Union, created in the latter half of a century the first half of which had seen two devastating wars, where member states are made to sit around a table and talk about things, seems to be an eminently sensible way, if nothing else, of keeping the peace.
However, I am not blind to the EU’s inefficiencies either as its Brussels bureaucrats dither and rack up expenses without seeming to achieve as much as they should; nor its costs like the much-discussed £350m-a-week that the UK pays; Nor its history of cocking things up like the laughable ERM debacle; Nor its grab for power by expanding its responsibilities beyond its original remit; Nor its ability to make some intrinsically unfair decisions like the fishing quotas that so adversely affect British fishing communities. So I have listened to the debate and tried to draw some conclusions that address the key questions… What Happens If We Remain? … What About Immigration? … What About The Cost? … What about Sovereignty and Democracy? … What Have The EU Ever Done For Us? … What Happens If We Brexit?
What happens if we remain? Well, as far as the EU is concerned it’s actually a pretty simple prospect. Nothing changes. We get what we’ve got… privileged member status, same cost of membership, same rebate, same influence, everything (as far as I can tell) in the status quo. Furthermore, we already have it built in to our membership agreement that any further transfer of power from the UK to the EU would have to be ratified by, god forbid, another bloody referendum. And we even have a veto on rejecting any new member states (Turkey) from joining. So, I’m really not worried about any dramatic change in the future. So far, so good then… if you don’t like it, vote leave, or vice versa. Of course when it comes to debate, *if* the Remain campaign’s entire raison d’être was “Remain In the EU because nothing changes”, then they’d be laughed out of their battle bus. Their campaign, by necessity, needs to be to educate* people on why leaving would not be very good. (* Brexiteers would naturally replace “educate” with “scare the bejeezus out of”). Anyway, to the issues…
What about immigration? To be honest, if it was not for immigration, we’d all still be living in caves because every country in the world has been built on the idea of people, originally, moving in. This may be a trite point to start with but it highlights the fact that there is an innate anthropological condition that “humans move around”. Added to this, borders are porous. Even on an island, people can arrive from elsewhere and not even a Trump-esque wall around Fortress Britain could do anything to stop it. If we create a place with a good standard of living in these green and pleasant lands, people will want to come and be a part of it. Every study I’ve ever heard about clearly shows that there is a net financial benefit to be gained: Far more taxes are paid by immigrants than benefits withdrawn, to wit, the vast majority of business leaders and the vast majority of economists say that immigration is good for a country. Anecdotally, of course, any budding journalist hoping to make his or her way in the Murdoch Empire will be able to find someone who’s flagrantly taking the piss out of the system and, absolutely, let’s sort out that problem when it arises, but let’s not cut off our nose to spite our face. Immigrants are the backbone of the building trade, of the NHS and community of carers, of the restaurants and bars that we all frequent, of the seasonal farming jobs that we cannot seem to get our locals doing, and probably many other sectors too. However, until someone comes up with a way to get the 1.6m unemployed people in Britain to be in the right place, have the right skills, and be willing to do these jobs, it is, at least, nice to know that someone will do them. And if it ever happened that the jobs did get filled and there was little else available, then the immigrants wouldn’t come here anyway. The second anti-immigration argument that does the rounds is the supposition that immigrants are a drain on national resources, such as GP waiting lists, school places, housing demands and so on. However, the net financial gain to the economy that is pretty well established and agreed upon, makes me think that the problem here is far more exacerbated by a decades long, chronic and persistent underinvestment in the NHS, schools, and housing, not the fact that a small minority of people needing these services might not have been born within these lands. Most other arguments against the free movement of people around the EU strike me as being nothing more than thinly veiled xenophobia and not worth the debate.
What about the cost? Well, let’s start with the £350m. There seems, for all the bluster, to be a general consensus here. Yes, it costs £350m a week to be part of the club. It also seems to be a consensus that we get back a bunch of grants and the rebate (not that we actually ‘pay’ the rebate, it’s just taken off the calculations in advance). Net of all this, is that we pay £8.5 BILLION more than we get back every year*. £8.5bn a year (on a population of 61.4m) equates to a little over £11.50 a month for every person in the country (including those very useful tax paying immigrants). And, as I said before, if you don’t like it, vote leave, or vice versa. Now, I always find it impossible to get any kind of perspective when people start talking in millions and billions of pounds. What could the UK do with £8.5bn-a-year? How many nurses? How many teachers? How many houses could be built? It all sounds quite compelling to free up this money and spend it more wisely. But do we really trust our politicians to do this and can the money get ring-fenced? There will be a huge cost to actually execute the Brexit strategy over the following two years. Hundreds, if not thousands of people will need to be employed and organisations created and restructured to manage the exit process and create whatever new order is deemed necessary. One UK/EU bureaucracy will dismantled and another one created. Funds will be diverted, the economy will continue booming and busting, time will pass and all that money (which is in reality, just a fraction of the national GDP) will have been absorbed. You know when you see constructs that are “Lottery Funded” and you think “Oh, that’s nice”? Well, I bet you a pound to a penny that you never see a label that states “Funded by the money we saved by leaving the EU”, I fear it will just be chucked in the melting pot and forgotten about. [* Data here is from “Full Fact”; a UK independent fact-checking charity…. https://fullfact.org/europe/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/]. More on the money in a moment, but for now…
What about Sovereignty and Democracy? Lots of comments I’ve heard focus on the lack of accountability and democracy in the EU as a reason for wanting to take back all the decision making into UK hands. Well, that’s just fine and dandy I guess. Although it might be worth having a think about the system into which we would be bringing that decision making. We have elections for District Councils, County Council and Police & Crime Commissioners, as well as our MP’s *and* MEP’s, so we have an established opportunity to make some kind of an impact on our governance. However, as a result of the antiquated first-past-the-post voting system that we currently endure, we have a Prime Minister and governing Conservative Party who won the last election with just 36.9% of the vote and, considering the 66.4% turnout, that means less than 25% of people actually voted for the people and party that govern us. And don’t get me started on the completely unelected, undemocratic second chamber. The UK is one of only two countries in the world who have unelected members of the clergy sitting in state legislature (the bishops of the House of Lords)… the other is Iran. You can thank whatever god you believe in that the monarchy only reign over us and don’t rule anymore. As if all that lack of accountability wasn’t bad enough, don’t forget lobbyists for big business, the outrageously biased right-wing press, the massively over-paid and unethical directorships that get handed to current and former MP’s as some kind of golden handshake bonus, and the so-called “1%” of the powerful elite who can be seen to have undue influence through their donations. To misquote Tyrion Lannister, “If you’re looking for democracy, you’ve come to the wrong place”. I’m pretty happy with EU having a bit of oversight over what the UK government gets up to.
What have the EU ever done for us? At the risk of sounding like the People’s Front of Judea (“Splitters!”) it’s always worth considering what each of us gets for our aforementioned £11.50 a month. Well, there’s all the trade stuff to start with. No-one is really suggesting that a Brexit will result in British companies not being able to trade with the other 27 EU nations, the simple laws of demand and supply suggest that where there’s a will there will be a way, but does anyone know exactly how that will work or what kind of tariffs might be imposed? That’s not a rhetorical question by the way… does ANYBODY know? They also gave us the European Convention on Human Rights. Or, more correctly, British legal advisors (after we had won the war) worked with European counterparts to create the ECHR that wrote into law the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of religion and freedom from slavery, etc, etc, etc. They’ve also given us visa free travel, environmental guidelines to clean up our beaches, all the worker’s rights around Transfer of Undertakings, maternity leave, and so on, all of which seem to be pretty useful. Of course, on the flip-side there are the rules and regulations that impact things like our fishing industry, and impact them in a very negative way. If only we had elected people working in the EU fighting for British interests! Yes, I agree that the EU don’t always cover themselves in glory but it really seems like we’d be better offer inside and trying to lead and influence, rather than being on the outside and just having a grumble. And so we come to the question of…
What happens if we leave the EU? Well, who the hell knows? The Leave campaign talks about the freedom, the independence and the opportunity of being unshackled from this awful institution. But when I hear a bunch of capitalists talking about freedom, independence and opportunity, I think to myself “uncertainty and opportunism” and it’s always the poor that suffer in those conditions while the rich make a grab to get richer. Being in the EU is far from being the end of the world. Immigration, at a holistic level, is not half as bad as people make it out to be. The cost of being in the club, either as a percentage of GDP or as a per capita fee, is really just a drop in the ocean and it’s not a saving that any of us would ever see in a tangible way were we to leave. The lack of accountability within the EU is really no worse than the lack of accountability in our own country. And the benefits of being a member have actually been pretty good. So, of course we shouldn’t leave. Just take a look at the swivel-eyed loons (Farage, Galloway, Gove, Johnson, et al), who want us to drag us, kicking and screaming, out from under our security blanket, and realise that there’s no way on earth you want to be on their side. Remain, my friends, remain.