Thinking beyond the EU referendum: reasons to Remain

Next week, I’m going to participate in the most momentous political decision of my lifetime. The polls say it’s close and I’m on the edge of my seat, anxious and worried. I’m worried that we might be about to make a huge mistake if we turn our backs to what I believe is the most democratic, successful and peaceful political union ever created.

I hold great respect for anyone that takes time to grapple with this, listening respectfully to both sides and forming their opinion. Complex questions have no right or wrong answer and we sometimes have to take gut decisions. However on this issue, I believe the arguments to remain are decisive: for peace and prosperity, for business and economics, and critically, for our environment.

Over the past few months, I have become increasingly convinced that remaining is both a smart and a morally right decision. This post explains some of the reasons why. There are few original thoughts here. It’s more a re-telling of insights from various articles with relevant facts that have helped me form my position.

“I want my country back!”

I’ve heard this statement a few times from those intending to vote for Brexit. It’s the call for a sense of control, the desire to claim back our full sovereignty. When thinking about this, it’s important to try and imagine what type of country we may get back if we leave the EU and who’d be in charge. Firstly, a Brexit will be the beginning of the end of David Cameron’s premiership. It is likely there will be calls for his resignation. Although he intends to stay, the blow to his passionate remain campaign will likely be enough to force a resignation as the job becomes untenable. Someone else will be considered better placed to spend the next few years embroiled in the inevitably quarrelsome EU exit talks.

Boris Johnson is the likely front-runner to become Tory leader and therefore could become our Prime Minister until 2020. Our new government will consist largely of more right-wing Eurosceptic Tories, with the softer pro-EU Conservatives disbanded because they lost the referendum.

Once we untangle ourselves from the EU, our government will no longer be subject to some of the broad, progressive rules and safeguards of the EU, such as on workers’ rights, free movement and protections of the environment. The extra sovereignty we gain from a Brexit provides us with more control and this is a good thing if you trust and agree with the Government’s positions on issues. But what about the next government? And the one after that? What we lose with a Brexit is the steady weight of important EU legislation that protects our status as a democracy, upholds human rights and respect for, and protection of minorities (all conditions for membership).

As remain campaigners often remind us, the EU is not perfect. One of my favourite Professors, Tim Lang who specialises in food policy said he has spent most of his career critiquing EU policy but makes a passionate case for remaining if we are ever to fix our broken, highly unsustainable food system.  Similarly does George Monbiot in his article “A lesser evil”, in which he outlines how he is starting to hate the European Union, but will vote to stay in.

Although the EU is not always perfect, it has been developed peacefully and democratically (more democratically than the UK, despite what Brexit campaigners say), enabling important progress such as democracy, peace and collaboration across Europe.

Turning away from this peaceful link with our European neighbours is stepping into a risky unknown. The country we get back may not be the one we hoped for. Let’s dig a little deeper into this…

What actually happens legally?

In order to start the process of leaving the EU, our government must invoke Article 50 and pass legislation. Article 50 triggers a (minimum) two year negotiation between the 27 Member States and the EU Commission which is then passed to EU Parliament to ratify. According to Neil Warwick, an EU and competition lawyer from Square One Law, there are four possible “out” outcomes as described in this graphic:

SQ1 Law EU Referendum

Warick explains that “It is important to recognise in three of the four scenarios, the UK would still be subject to EU law and free movement of people, but crucially would no longer have any input into the formation of new EU laws”.

Leaving the EU means that our voice has less weight on issues such as monetary, trading and environmental policies of the 26 countries on our doorstep. Our voice and influence will be weaker, not just in Europe, but globally. Obama argued this case recently, framing our current status in the EU as one that magnifies our influence in the world.

By staying in, we can help shape crucial environmental laws that depend on international co-operation. Without this platform, we are a lone voice, unable to participate as forcefully in some of the most important challenges that humanity faces.

How will other countries react?

A Brexit is a blow to core EU members and divorcing ourselves from the various EU treaties will be a complicated process. However EU diplomats have suggested there would be a push to get the Brexit process done quickly to avoid it dominating the agenda.

I believe it’s wishful thinking that we will get a favourable deal. After submitting Article 50, the EU is in charge of the timetable during two years of negotiations and the UK is excluded from key decisions as well as the final vote. During this period, the UK could be presented with a ‘take it or leave it’ deal.

EU members are likely to impose tough terms for the UK in some areas, sending a message that you can’t keep the advantages of the EU while being outside it. “Core EU members like France and Germany may also look to assert their influence in a reconfigured bloc to sway other countries against adopting an easy-going attitude toward the Britain”. The tough areas for us will likely be trade and economy, where it could be more difficult for UK businesses to trade with the EU. With about 44% of our exported goods and services going to Europe, this is where the risk lies. Brexit campaigners usually shrug this off, arguing that we can look beyond the sluggish economies of the EU to more dynamic parts of the world.

I have two main objections with this. Firstly an environmental objection. We need to be moving in a direction towards more local, bioregional production and consumption. This is a recognised aspiration in the EU and working within it as a member, makes this more likely. Secondly, this argument is a claim about the future, predicated on trading relationships that do not yet exist. Negotiating international trade agreements may not be easier alone. Take the USA, perhaps it’s just scare-mongering, but when Obama said that UK will be “at the back of the queue” on trade agreements, he was probably being realistic. Organising and maintaining a strong trading relationship with a large bloc will be their first priority.

There’s also a train of thought that the disruption from our Brexit may trigger a slow break up of the Union. This would be a tragedy for democracy, especially if the break up occurred through feelings of resentment. After everything the EU has provided over 70 years of peacetime, I’m not convinced a break up would happen and have faith in our neighbours that they would continue to work together through the EU. I believe our Brexit could shake a lot of things up, however the forum the EU provides is strong enough to withstand it.

“There’s no more space!”

Over recent years, there’s been a growing sentiment that immigrants are to blame for many societal problems. The hope of strictly controlling our borders is a primary motivator for many voting for a Brexit. This is the big issue. It’s complex and needs to be approached carefully and sensitively, as it can feel a confrontation to the freedoms of many people in our lives, from neighbours and colleagues, to friends and family.

Firstly. Let’s not hide from the fact that immigration does put additional pressure on housing and public services, in particular schools and our health service which are already struggling. I can therefore completely understand the rationale behind wanting better controls on immigration to ease these pressures and safeguard the quality of our services. “There’s no more space!” is the statement that neatly sums it up for many in the Leave camp. For many who back Brexit, their arguments always returns to this logic. However let’s unpack immigration a little more, as it deserves deeper examination.

As explained earlier, in most scenarios, leaving the EU will not enable us to prevent the free movement of people in Europe. If we do manage to implement strict border controls after our withdrawal, it will likely come as part of a tough compromise on EU trading relationships. That’s one risk but probably not a deal-breaker for a Brexit campaigner.

Actually, what has convinced me more about remaining in Europe was understanding our current immigration system more and holding a belief that by working together with other EU members, we are much better placed to peacefully resolve the challenges of migration over time.

1. Useful numbers

Last year, net immigration from EU countries was 184,000 and from non-EU countries, it was 188,000. The majority of immigrants have nothing to do with Europe. The UK isn’t bound to accept non-EU immigrants by any international treaties, so we could have controlled the flow of people from outside Europe, but we didn’t. This was for three main reasons:

  1. We have a growing economy and we need the skills: unemployment rates have been falling more or less constantly for the past five years. Our social services depend on immigrants, particularly health where a quarter of NHS doctors are foreign nationals. The BMA advises that “without the support of these doctors many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients”.
  2. Many come for a limited time: three quarters of immigrants move to the UK for work or study and only a proportion of these will remain for longer periods.
  3. Immigration has an economic benefit: the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration found that between 1995-2011, EU immigrants contributed £8.8 billion more than they gained.
Long-term international migration estimates of immigration to the UK, by main reason for migration, 2005 to 2014 (year ending December 2014)

Some other points worth considering are that:

2. Accessing benefits and public services

At the heart of the immigration debate for many people is an unwillingness to share public services, despite the irony that without immigrants, they would fall apart. The rights to free movement are in treaties that form the primary law of the European Union. However they are not absolute or unconditional. We can interfere with free movement rights for reasons such as public policy, public security and public health however we rarely do this, probably for some of the reasons outlined in the previous section.

Contrary to suggestions otherwise, no-one can turn up and instantly have access to “public funds” such as jobseekers’ allowance, child benefit or tax credits, although people can access public services like the NHS and education. This puts additional pressure on those services but given every other benefit that immigration brings, this is clearly worth it.

3. Why a Little England attitude is dangerous

As immigration dominates the heart of this referendum, a vote to leave sends a signal on how we feel about immigrants and will fuel the growing resentment in our society towards outsiders.

The climate change we are on track to experience this century, together with population increases, mean that mass migration and those needing asylum will increase. What we have seen in recent years is probably just a small flavour of the challenges we have to come.

If we vote Remain, we have a better chance of working together to coordinate and support these mass movements. It’s critical to have a forum to talk about it and frameworks to peacefully manage it. If anything is clear from this referendum, it’s that change is necessary. This is recognised across all nations in Europe. By sticking together, peaceful progress is more likely, working under social democratic values than going it alone. As history repeatedly teaches us, civilised democracies can easily be inflamed by racism and xenophobia. We are starting to see this nasty atmosphere build, not only at home but even with one of our biggest allies, the USA, represented by the rise of Donald Trump. For the sake of peace, we must fight it, and the EU gives us the best platform to do so.

On the environment

This is an area of huge importance but I will spend the least time on it. Simply put, the EU enables us to take a bold and coordinated action on responding to climate change as it unravels. What’s critical here are how our challenges are shared across nations, so the benefits of a coordinated response are in all our interests. Specifically, concerns such as the collapse in biodiversity, how we transition beyond oil, food security, land use, natural disasters and how we de-couple economic growth from unsustainable consumption. Thanks to the EU, progress has been made in many of these areas and it’s vital that we step up our efforts and work harder on this together.

More on economics

Eurosceptics rage against the cost of EU membership and will make misleading claims about it. The net cost of membership to about £7 billion per year, less than half a per cent of national income — about £260 a year for each British household. Given that the EU provides us with easy access to a $16.6 trillion a year Single Market of 500m people, the membership cost feels like good value to me.

With about 44% of our trade going to Europe, it would be reckless to prejudice our ability to pay for our health service, to pensions and public services after a Brexit, particularly when we do not have a very clear strategy beyond.

The Leave campaign has famously quoted a £350m saving on money sent to Brussels. This is mythical and has been discredited time and time again. The truth is nobody knows the true financial saving because it’s not possible to calculate it accurately. One of the most comprehensive Brexit reports by Open Europe believes a realistic range is between a 0.8% permanent loss to GDP in 2030 and a 0.6% permanent gain in GDP in 2030. Maybe this isn’t an area we can draw many conclusions from.

However there are authoritative voices that should be considered. Every substantial representative group of British business believes we should remain, and every significant economic forecaster and agency is warning against the economic damage that will be cause by a Brexit. “Even economists backing Brexit rarely argue that the EU has had an overall negative effect”.

The referendum does not completely guarantee our EU exit

It’s useful to remember why this referendum came about. It was called because of arguments in the right-wing of British politics; promised by the Conservative party to quell a split that was forming during a period when support for UKIP was rising and posing a threat to a Conservative win in the 2015 elections.

UKIP, a party with just one MP and a small number of Eurosceptic MPs have therefore been incredibly successful in putting this referendum on the table. The vast majority of our 650 MPs are Europhiles and do not back Brexit. Watching this wave of negativity towards the EU grow out of a campaign filled with scare-mongering and lies, will MPs really be willing to see through a full Brexit? For the sake of democracy, probably. But one interesting detail about this referendum is that it’s not legally binding, it’s only advisory. This means that it can be ignored by the UK government, even if the public votes for Brexit.

At the time of writing, polls are suggesting a swing towards Brexit. If this happens, parliamentary sovereignty might be the last glimmer of hope for remain campaigners, although it may send the public up in arms.

EU referendum opinion polls

Here’s how it could pan out: I expect most MPs will accept the mandate of the people, however everything regarding the terms of leaving is negotiable and the job of parliament to navigate. A Brexit vote may trigger turmoil in the finance sector and negative reactions from major businesses and countries. While navigating this, presuming Cameron holds his position for a period, he could delay issuing Article 50, arguing that this matter be put to parliament first to try and better establish what our new relationship with the EU should look like. In parliament, MPs may support a motion to protect Britain’s place in the EU with a major renegotiation of terms. It’s rather messy and very speculative. But anything could happen right now.

Voting for hope

Voting to divorce ourselves from Europe will likely do little to solve immigration and as discussed in this post, may well do more harm than good. Certainly, for the first few years we will see no change and the news will be dominated by messy negotiations with our neighbours as we withdraw. All the while, those that voted to leave will feel the same sense of powerlessness and the old problems will still be unresolved: more cuts, property bubbles, low skills, low productivity and continued migration.

Instead, by remaining, we send a message of hope. If we put as much energy into reforming the EU than trying to forge a success of Brexit, the UK and the EU could both be happier and better off. A vote to remain is a vote that says, “we’re willing to work together”. It sends a message that “we stand for peace and stability” with our neighbours. A vote to remain, is therefore, the obvious choice for me.